Saturday, November 8, 2008

Music and Travel: Linked in Memory?

I think many of us can agree that one of the best ways to pass time on long trips is to listen to music. Since I bought my first Mp3 player, I have used it on every trip I've gone on. My family travels rather often, so I get the chance to use it at least a couple times per year. I had never given any thought to the two being linked. However, recently I have noticed a trend involving music and travel.

When I recall a trip to a place that I had never been to before and have not returned since, I remember the music I listened to on the way to, at, and on the way back home from the destination. It's interesting, and in a way, it improves the memory, making it a fonder one because of the soundtrack accompanying it. It's a really intriguing idea. Here are a few personal examples from my travels.

Upper Peninsula of Michigan - Meddle, Pink Floyd
In August of 2007, my family took a short vacation up north through Michigan, looking around in Canada for a couple hours, as well. After visiting Sault Ste. Marie, we ventured west in the U.P. toward the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum near Lake Superior. The museum had a continuous loop of music, one song of which was "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," by Gordon Lightfoot. But while that song really stuck with my memories from that trip, I also recall the Pink Floyd album Meddle. Specifically, I remember listening to "Fearless" as we drove along in the wooded area bordering the lake and stopped to look at a lighthouse. I especially remember the echoing soccer chant at the close of the song. Nowadays, Meddle isn't really one of my favorites, but it is etched in my memory from that trip to the U.P.

Charleston, South Carolina - "Moonchariot," Elvenking
There are times when I find a song I really like, and I just listen to it again and again. On a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, during Spring Break this year, that song was "Moonchariot" by Elvenking. We spent our time visiting the Yorktown aircraft carrier (known as "The Fighting Lady") and Fort Sumter (which now has an ugly museum on it within its walls... it's nothing like the original fort, and there isn't much to do there). Anyway, when we had some downtime, I kept playing "Moonchariot" over and over. It wasn't too folksy, and it wasn't too metal. That's a formula for success for a folk metal song. If you feel like listening, go right ahead, but to be honest, I doubt you will like it.

Clarksdale, Mississippi - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, The Flaming Lips
Last summer, I began working on my school's 40 service hours requirement. My dad, my brother, and I went south with a Habitat for Humanity group to help with house construction. At the time, I had just acquired The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. You must understand that on a Habitat for Humanity trip, there isn't much privacy at the place where everyone stays. We had twenty on our trip, so it wasn't easy to find a quiet space. I wasn't irritated by this, but when I felt like closing everyone out, I went onto my top bunk in the male bedroom (five sets of bunk beds), and listened to Yoshimi. I couldn't get over the clarity and creativity of the album, and to this day, when I hear the album, I think of being on that top bunk and soaking it all in for the first time. My favorite song was probably "In the Morning of the Magicians," a very mellow track.

Boston, Massachusetts - Houses of the Holy, Led Zeppelin
I love Led Zeppelin. Let there be no question about it. However, an album I had never really paid attention to was Houses of the Holy. I liked "Over the Hills and Far Away" and "The Ocean," of course, but I had never been too strong on "No Quarter," "The Crunge," or "The Rain Song." Well, we went to Boston over Columbus Day weekend this fall, and the night before we would fly back home, we stayed with a couple of my parents' friends. Before I went to sleep, I decided to listen to Houses on a whim. I had expected to listen to a little bit and then fall asleep, but I wound up listening to the entire album. I discovered "No Quarter" was subtly brilliant, that "The Crunge" was not as intolerably annoying as I had believed, and that "The Rain Song" was, in fact, a masterpiece. Now, when I listen to those tracks, I remember the feelings of revelation I had that night, realizing that Zep's fifth album was not as mediocre as I had previously believed.

Music being tied to memories is a very fascinating idea. I think the reason it occurs on vacations is because you are experiencing a new place. Whereas you may listen to hours of music at your computer, you won't remember the songs you heard after a couple days (at the most) because you listen to music there all the time. When you're in a new place for the first time, you absorb everything, and that includes the tunes playing in your ears. I'm sure there are other situations where music becomes part of a memory, but I can definitely testify to it occuring on vacations.

Have any of you experienced this phenomenon?

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