Music can be a sort of time machine. When I hear The Carpenters' version of "(They Long to Be) Close to You," I am transported back to the family television room of my youth. I can still picture Karen Carpenter on the black and white screen, seated behind her drum kit, gently biting her lower lip between opening stanzas.
Similarly, any track from the album Deep Purple in Rock reminds me of teenage parties. Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman will forever summon forth memories of the girlfriend who ran away from her alcoholic mother. This LP was one of her few possessions, and she played it incessantly in her one-room bedsit.
I didn't own copies of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Déjà Vu, or Carole King's Tapestry, but they were everywhere at the time, and so I remain conversant with every note and lyric.
There were also live performances in my youth that still elicit vivid memories, Frank Zappa's first tour of Australia being one such example. It was 1973, and Sydney was experiencing power blackouts due to industrial action. To my great relief, and no doubt Zappa's, the Hordern Pavilion had its own generator. The crack band, including jazzers George Duke and Jean Luc Ponty, was road-testing the material which would later appear on the album Apostrophe (').
I also have vivid memories of Pink Floyd's 1971 tour down under, where they were forced to play on a makeshift stage at Royal Randwick Racecourse with a gale force wind nearly blowing them onto the racetrack. Mind you, the weather added a certain frisson when Roger Waters let out his evocative scream during "Careful with That Axe, Eugene." The sound quality was awful, and the show began hours after it was scheduled, but all that frustration only adds to my recollections.
University days also provided a string of memorable experiences thanks to the lunchtime concerts staged by the student's union. Lodged in my memory is Australia's answer to progressive rock, MacKenzie Theory, with Cleis Pearce whipping up a storm on her electric viola. Scabrous outfit the 69ers also left an indelible impression, especially their tune, "Bum Sweat, Crusty Bits and Stangers."
Music has a remarkable capacity to lodge in our brains, firmly attaching itself to specific times and places. As neuroscientists like Daniel J. Levitin have shown, our physiological response to music is highly complex, engaging many different parts of the brain simultaneously. Multiple-trace memory modeling suggests that specific memories are cross-coded with the context in which they were formed, and there's nothing quite like music to release those unique memory cues with their time-specific settings. While repeated listening to old favourites diminishes their capacity to invoke memories, when we hear a song that we haven't listened to for a long time the floodgates are often opened, triggering deep emotions and recollections.
Tony Wellington. Courtesy of the author.
Researchers have also noted that we tend to respond best to music that we denote as "our music," which inevitably means the music of our teens and twenties. That's not only the era during which we were discovering music, but also when we employed music to make sense of the world. So deep are these memories that even brain diseases like Alzheimer’s cannot expunge them. Indeed, people suffering advanced types of dementia may no longer identify family members but play them a song from their youth and they will frequently sing along, word-perfect.
Why do we keep returning to the music of our youth? A good deal of research demonstrates that our musical tastes are largely locked in by the time we hit our twenties. There is also plenty of research to show that the majority of us stop seeking out new music around the age of 30. For the rest of our lives, we tend to reach for the music of our youth. One study found that our favourite songs activate the pleasure areas of our brain, releasing dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. The more we like a song, the more intense those neurotransmitters become. What's more, with familiar songs, our brains anticipate the high points of the tune, triggering even more positive brain chemicals.
The way we respond to music is also culturally ordained: it's not inherent in the music itself. While it's long been assumed that minor chords are more likely to evoke melancholy feelings while major scales are considered to be happy, that simply doesn't hold true for people with only sporadic exposure to Western music. In one study, remote communities in Papua New Guinea were compared with musicians based in Sydney to gauge their separate reactions to specific chord progressions and melodies. The Papua New Guinea folk were just as likely to choose a minor scale as being happier than they were a major scale. Our responses to music are reinforced by the cultural use of specific music, say, to accompany events such as parties, funerals or weddings. Having learned how to respond to types of music, we can thereafter use music to help regulate our moods.
In the Sixties and Seventies, music was stuff to be shared. I loaned my King Crimson and Gentle Giant albums to my high school English teacher, and he responded with his Little Feat and Steely Dan discs. My friends and I would regularly gather in front of a stereo system for the sole purpose of listening to an album together.
Music back then had social consequences. To simply walk down the street with certain LPs under ones' wing (front cover always facing out) was to make a public statement about who we were. When cassette tapes arrived, we created compilation tapes of favourite tracks and handed them to our paramours, thus providing a tangible demonstration of the sort of person they were getting involved with.
But at the end of the ’70s, along came the Sony Walkman. Suddenly music was no longer something to be shared. The very nature of music changed. Music became increasingly personalised, piped through a headset whilst actively excluding other people from the listening experience.
Today, apart from a live setting, music is mostly consumed in private and rarely shared with others. I doubt that many young people gather to simply sit still and listen to an album. Thanks to streaming services, music can be turned on and off like a tap. The listener has far less investment in the music than they did when they had to travel to a store and hand over hard-earned cash.
Some ten million songs are uploaded to streaming services every year. As often as not, our musical choices are being made by algorithms. Even the pleasure in following band members from album to album has vanished. Only the title artist now gets a credit on the streaming service, and supporting musicians remain summarily ignored.
Music today is so accessible and absurdly abundant that I fear it is losing its value. From observing young folk today, music appears to be something that accompanies video games, or is played in the background whilst performing tasks such as studying and homework. Of course, every generation believes the music of their formative years to be the best that was ever created. As noted above, that's because it is embedded alongside emotional memories that are inevitably intense. But I do wonder whether music today will have the sort of resonating impact on today's youth that we boomers enjoyed in our formative years.
Tony Wellington is an Australian writer and the author of Vinyl Dreams – How the 1970s Changed Music, and Freak Out: How a Musical Revolution Rocked the World in the Sixties (both published by Monash University Publishing). For many years Tony worked in the film and television industry as a scriptwriter, director and editor, and he lectured in media studies and film. He has also worked as a professional artist and illustrator.
Tony has run folk clubs, hosted a music radio show, and has written for music magazines. He is a former Mayor of Noosa Shire. For more information, please visit www.tonywellington.com.