By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
T.S. Eliot once said that April is the cruelest month. Perhaps that is so, but this year it seems that January is vying for that ignominious honor. In addition to the cold winter storms hammering both coasts, and the plummeting stock market, we also seem to be losing icons of the entertainment industry at an alarming rate. Pat Harrington, Dan Haggerty, Alan Rickman, and Wayne Rogers to name but a few. Perhaps the greatest loss has been experienced in the music world – most notably Natalie Cole, Glenn Frey of the Eagles and David Bowie of, well, David Bowie. For those of us of a certain age, it seems that with each death a bit of our youth gets taken away. I got to thinking about that the other day as I was listening to a tribute to Mr. Frey. The radio host played “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and I was instantly transported back to 1972, remembering exactly where I was living and the beat up record player on which I played their LP.
I don’t know about you, but I can bookmark my younger days by the singers and songs of the era. In 1964, I was standing waiting for the school bus when everyone’s transistor radios began playing a song from a new group: the Beatles, singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. Just to illustrate why I never became a record producer, I remember turning to my girlfriend and saying I thought the lyrics were stupid. So much for my ability to spot a trend. But somehow that first exposure to the world’s most successful quartet is forever etched in my memory. In the summer of 1966 I was at a party with a young man by the name of Greg Susser. When the 45 of Percy Faith’s “Theme from A Summer Place” dropped on to the turntable Greg and I went out to the dance floor. Mid-way through the song, under the starry skies, he leaned down and said to me, “For the rest of our lives, when we hear this song, we should remember this moment”. Quite a romantic play for a 17-year-old with chin stubble. But the fact is, for the past 50 years, every time I’ve heard that song I do think about that party. It would be a more sentimental story if I said that we went on to have a great romance but actually I never saw him after high school. Still…the moment is cemented firmly in my memory because of that song. And in 1973, after a day skiing at Squaw Valley, I was in the bar dancing with a ski patrol member who was a new arrival from Germany. The song “It Never Rains in California” came on and he whispered to me – “Do you mean to tell me it never rains here?”. It seemed like such a ridiculous question, given that we were surrounded by several feet of snow. Every time I hear that song I think about him and wonder whether he was smart enough to figure out how to get back to Germany.
With the passing of Glenn Frey and David Bowie every media outlet has played their songs in tribute. For the most part, I could place where I was when their songs were hits and miraculously, I could remember most of the lyrics. Yet, if you threatened me with my life, I could not tell you the name of the book I read last month nor could I quote any passage from it. I gave this some serious thought – why can I recall lyrics from 50 years ago but not remember anything I read last month? I did some quick research (meaning I Googled the phenomenon) and found several interesting articles addressing the issue. Clearly, I am not alone in my selective memory. It mostly comes down to this: repetition and rhyme. It turns out that our old piano teachers were right – the more we hear something the easier it is to memorize and ingrain that “muscle memory” into our brain. Part of the reason that we recall songs from our youth is that we played them over and over. Remember when your mom yelled “Turn off that darn record player, I can’t hear that song one more time!”? Well, turns out, we were actually imprinting the song in the deep recesses of our memory.
The second reason we remember is due to the rhyming nature of most songs (think “American Pie”). Our brains anticipate a rhyme, thus making it easier to remember the whole phrase. For example, in the song “Mary Had a Little Lamb” the first two lines are ‘Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow’, so your brain anticipates not only a word that rhymes with ‘snow’ but one that can also be joined to that sentence in roughly the same amount of syllables or ‘beats’. This greatly reduces the number of available words your brain has to consider and so helps you remember the whole lyric more quickly. Since we are programmed to remember song and rhymes better than prose, we can hum our high school fight song well into our old age.
At least now I understand WHY I remember old lyrics. But I can’t recall the name of that nice appliance repairman that was here in October. Perhaps if he’d sung a song I would stand a better chance.