I’ve always wondered what it is about music that makes it cling to our most remarkable moments. Whether it’s memories of long drives singing along to pop tunes, watching friends get married, or our first heartbreak, I’m sure you’ve got tunes that provide the soundtrack to those memories. I know I do.
When I backtrack through the massive Rolodex of music I’ve ever listened to, the first track I can associate with a memory is John Mayer’s ‘Another Kind of Green’. It’s one of the pop star-turned-bluesman’s more obscure tracks, yet one of his most accomplished, if I may say so myself.
I was 12 years old and had just received my first guitar for Christmas, a gold and ivory Squire Stratocaster I kept until I was about 18. I remember hating it at first glance. The thing was hideous, every sparkling gold and off-white inch of it.
Looks, however, are superficial. As with most blossoming loves, it grew to be my everything, and for the next decade would provide the sounding board to every track that indexes my adolescence.
But back to ‘Another Kind of Green.’
The song itself is an amalgam of clever, coded lyric and dexterous guitar work. The opening guitar riff – which forms the basis of the song’s chord structure – is difficult to learn and even harder to master. Mayer’s prodigious playing ability, his lyrical wizardry, and distinctly nasal singing voice gave me my adolescent identity. I cherish the memories of my countless late nights, quietly hammering away at my guitar, certain I was the next great blues singer.
And ‘Another Kind of Green,’ the track that inspired all those hours spent in isolation, was one I heaped meaning onto. I didn’t need anybody else’s validation. My love for that song was enough.
I read once that music is powerful enough to change one’s perception of the world around them. About this I have no doubts. It was transformative for me, turning the introverted, bushy-haired kid that had difficulty making eye contact with anyone – other than the guitar heroes on CD covers (remember those?) – into the budding rockstar that could silence a bustling bar with the first verse of Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.”
Perception is what you make of things; situations. Through music, I didn’t feel like the outsider. For me, that was huge.
Over the years, I’ve tried to decipher what it is about a piece of music that makes it first accessible, then relatable. Because only once we establish a song as relatable can we accept it into the narrative of our own folktales.
Could it be as simple as an ascending melody line against a descending chord progression, or as simple as a sad line of lyric sung against a minor chord? (And vice versa, of course.)
I think good, relatable music is fundamentally honest. I’ve never heard a good song that wasn’t honest. And I’ve never listened to an honest song that I couldn’t appreciate.
Meanwhile, our own memories are vulnerable, and set in stone. The unchanging nature of our memories makes them as precious and valuable as anything we truly own. They live with us – our successes, mistakes, and everything in between.
Our memories are our most cherished records, and we use music to keep our memories safe. Music, I think, is humankind’s only true superpower.
It’s why tracks like Imogen Heap’s ‘Hide and Seek’ and, more recently, Seinabo Sey’s ‘You’ are infinitely listenable despite their obvious aural idiosyncrasies. It’s why, when Ingrid Michaelson sings of sliding away on soapy heels in ‘The Chain,’ you feel a sense of weightlessness. It’s why Brandi Carlile’s ‘Hard Way Home’ leaves the listener with a sense of wonderment and naïve positivity.
These songs are laden with honesty.
It’s why the hairs on the back of my neck still stand up when I hear Amos Lee sing the opening line of ‘Colors,’ and why I will forever struggle to listen to John Mayer’s ‘Stop This Train’.
Music is my blanket, my force field. I’ve used it since I was a kid to wrap up remarkable moments into palatable packages. Music has helped me navigate some of my most testing moments, and it’s also been there for some of the happiest occasions, magnifying their joy, then providing markers with which I can return to those feelings.
It’s intriguing that nobody really knows what makes music – which has no utilitarian value, unlike sex, eating, or exercise – so gratifying to the human condition. I’ve read studies that say it has to do with endorphin release, or even blood flow to certain regions of the brain. But because music causes people to react in different ways – even when it’s the same piece of music – empirical evidence of music’s benefits are hard to pinpoint.
This also applies to the way individuals use music as record-keepers for their lives. Everybody has a track that resonates with him or her, even if the same track will not resonate with others the same way. (If you are like me, however, there’s nothing like sharing a piece of music with another individual who understands your point of view.)
When I was 18, I made my first $20 busking on the streets of Harvard Square. I had just moved to Boston for college and, inspired by stories of Tracy Chapman and Martin Sexton performing on lamp-lit street corners outside the picturesque Harvard University campus, decided to relieve some of my built-up anxiety by doing what I knew best at the time: playing my guitar.
Now, more than the weather or the atmosphere or the time of evening, the starkest aspect of my memory of that day was the song I was playing when I realized somebody had dropped a $20 bill into my guitar case, which lay open at my feet: Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’.
Did that song mean anything to me prior to that moment? No. But that moment, one that I’ll treasure for the rest of my time here, is forever linked to that song. Whenever ‘Purple Rain’ comes up on a television show or on somebody’s playlist, my mind drifts to that evening. It’s funny how that works. Magical, too.
Music has a way of highlighting moments so we don’t forget. If you were to make a mix tape of life’s moments, what songs would you include? What past experiences would they remind you of? If you haven’t yet, perhaps it’s time to make one.
Then tuck that compilation away. For safekeeping. For a rainy day.
About the contributor:
KD C. is a Hong Kong-based writer and editor.