Music in the Past and Present

I never delete music. My constantly burgeoning music collection is saved from becoming overwhelming thanks to a highly selective addition process, but by the time I die I will likely have more music than I could possibly know what to do with, covering every period of my life with absolute thoroughness. I’ve found that most of my friends don’t share this habit of musical hoarding and will get rid of music that is dated, embarrassing, taking up too much space on their hard drive (and previously, their shelves), or simply doesn’t resonate with them like it used to.

Music is the most immediate and personalized form of entertainment, and for many it is the most transitive. Nostalgia ensures a positive memory of past musical loves, but people mature, tastes change, and relevance is temporary even for the best-loved artists. With the advent of fully portable libraries, music grows ever more situational, intimately connected to the events, location, people, and moods which accompanied its listening. This only serves to heighten ties between music and memory, and the subsequent desire to move on to something new once a song’s purpose as a complement to an experience has been served.

There’s no question that unabashed nostalgia is far from desirable, but I’d like to advocate for a movement away from digital contemporaneity to a more holistic musical appreciation of where each of us has come from and how we’ve grown. Engaging with music you loved in the past is not necessarily indulgent, embarrassing, or immature; it offers the chance to reflect on how music influenced and shaped the narrative of your life. I find this effect to be most prevalent in the soundtracks to films I watched as a child. During my freshman year of college I happened upon the “Prologue” from John Williams’ score for Stephen Spielberg’s Hook, a childhood favorite that I had not watched in over a decade. I quickly purchased the score and a few days later had one of the more surreal experiences of my life. Every cue, every theme, every moment from the film came flooding back, but the revelation wasn’t in the details. The music unveiled a story that was instrumental in the formation of my perception of life and my understanding of family, tragedy, and optimism.

Much has been written on the connection between music and memory (Cognitive Daily offers one example), but it isn’t the science or the statistics that will convince you of the immense value of taking the time every once in a while to musically reflect on your life. There’s an excellent chance that the music you currently listen to and the choices you make, the people with whom you connect, and your outlook on life were shaped in part by the music you listened to when you were younger. Music isn’t simply an emotional accompaniment to the present, it’s also a motivating force, a cognitive archive, a narrative experience: one of the most powerful tools for recollection and self-analysis that we possess. The next time you want to delete an old album from your computer, think twice. Someday, it might inspire a realization or trigger a memory that would otherwise be lost.

John Boles

John Boles is a former Master's candidate in the Communication, Culture & Technology program at Georgetown University and a blogger for gnovis. He double-majored in Communication and Music at Boston College, exploring the intersection of entertainment media including film, television, music, literature, and video games. At Georgetown he is expanding those studies with research on the economics of the cultural industries and the complex issues of narrative and identity intrinsic to the creative process. John is also a composer and guitarist, who most recently released a solo album under the name Align in Time.