The soundtrack to your life: remembering 2021

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Breath bated, it’s always an adrenaline rush when the Spotify Wrapped for the year drops. Well, maybe it’s not quite that dramatic but there is always something satisfying about tapping through those brightly coloured swirls and bops outlining those 3 am cravings for Taylor Swift.

My favourite part of this annual tradition would undoubtedly be the playlist you are presented with at the end – a participation prize if you will. The cloche lifted, scrolling through elicits echoes of retina-burning lunches and confiding late-night conversations in which they were the aural wallpaper. Walking down that lane can be one of poignant and immediate emotions, allowing you to re-experience a time past. This can be owed to the intense relationship between music and memory; research done within this field has already manifested in helping hands offered to those with dementia, the elderly and others in need.

Music is the perfect catalyst for bringing those memories to the forefront

And as to why this is possible would be due to the fact that the region in the brain in which past memories are stored happens to be the very same region in which familiar tunes lie alongside memory and emotion. Discovered through studies carried out by Petr Janata of UC Davis’ Centre for Mind and Brain (2009), this hub of information is located behind the forehead in the frontal cortex. Since this is such a large area of the brain, a large volume of information is taken in every minute. Music, through its interwoven network of rhythms and melody, can therefore act as a cue that holds the key to unlocking the information which is carefully stored there.

In a pioneering study by Baird and Samson (2013), music has been found to be more effective in evoking autobiographical memories than mere verbal prompts in patients with acquired brain injuries. This suggests that those songs we love so much, put on repeat through some of life’s smallest and biggest events, are effective stimuli in eliciting just those memories little souvenirs for future consumption. Realising this can lead us to understand how music can serve as that powerful trigger in memory retrieval. For example, the song ‘Really Really’ by WINNER, to me, screams a balmy summer’s day. The vibrant tropical beat and the fresh vocals let my brain revisit my first visit to South Korea the thrill I had in navigating in a country I had admired from afar for so long still gives me butterflies… And any time I wish to ‘go back’, I can just search for that song and am whisked away. But how does that happen?

Like an old friend, the sweet memories affixed to each one will never leave

There are myriad kinds of memory and it is especially the implicit memory systems that take it in as a more unconscious form of memory – its opposite, explicit memory, implies a deliberate recreation of the past. It is how you know how to ride a bike, brush your teeth and hug a friend without thinking about it — it’s just there. It’s been found to be particularly robust, still on-tap for those suffering from amnesia or other diseases/injuries affecting the same area of the body. The implicit system can be stimulated most easily through emotion; music is the perfect catalyst for bringing those memories to the forefront.

Vivid memories in those aforementioned can therefore be elicited through such stimulation. For example in the extreme case of Clive Wearing, former pro-musician suffering from one of history’s worst cases of amnesia, he was able to still conduct his erstwhile choir, taking them smoothly from each section of the music and feeling the phrases and melodies flow as he had once before. It is a miraculous thing that music can bring back moments of lives that have otherwise been lost. It is in this sense that music is so powerful – it has the ability to heal.

For that reason, whenever you should want to revisit the fascinatingly hectic chapter of 2021, to relieve each contour of a life-changing year — you will always be able to simply relax into the comforting arms of songs well-loved and past. Like an old friend, the sweet memories affixed to each one will never leave. Indeed, music will never leave you.

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