The first time I realized that a memory or location could call into mind an associated song happened in the fledgling days of Minecraft, circa 2012.
As background, I spent a good portion of my early high school years invested in the world-building game. Having outgrown LEGOs long before, the game stoked my architectural creativity and issued a satisfying challenge of trying to simply stay alive and prosper.
I excavated strip mines, built a house, started a farm and crafted glass for a greenhouse. After a while, however, I began to retread the same blocks over and over again, which gave me a sense of familiarity.
At that point in my life, I always played my iTunes library from the speakers of my first PC while gaming on it or Xbox Live. Since then, my taste has grown enough to where I feel like I can write a music column each week, but I’m certain that my old library housed some embarrassing music: Linkin Park, Seether and a whole lot of the Chili Peppers (as a disclaimer: I still like the Chili Peppers, especially John Frusciante’s guitar work).
But MGMT’s infectious hit “Kids” sticks out to the most of all the songs of that era. While burrowing underground in Minecraft, searching for the ever-precious diamonds, I passed a certain mineshaft that put a needle to the gramophone in my mind and “Kids” started to play in my head without prompt. Perhaps, it was a Pavlovian reflex; the song did have a tuned piano. And each subsequent time I passed that section, I would associate it with “Kids.”
Although a moment of little value to anyone else, this experience helped me to realize that, like sight, smell, taste and touch, our minds recall sounds from particular times, rendering memories even stronger. In retrospect, I now realize that I associate MGMT’s song not only with a moment in a game, but also with a youthful time in my life. The connection has expanded with age to mean more.
From that point on, I noticed the phenomenon of being transported to a distant place through nostalgic or meaningful music. I will always associate Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs with waiting to be picked up for winter break. I connect Earl Sweatshirt’s second LP with a rough and uncertain time during my sophomore year. And, every time “Born Under Punches” by Talking Heads comes on, I imagine I’m at Casa Nueva on 80s Night.
Along with the more pronounced visual components we see in our mind’s eye, audio memories can recall the same amount of emotional weight and hindsight clarity. Some people with synesthesia have these two sensations combined, being able to see sounds as corresponding colors. Musicians ranging from Billy Joel to Pharrell Williams experience this condition.
But for the rest of us, a song associated with a key moment in one’s life might hold the same importance as the people who were present, the magnitude of it and the feelings one felt. There is no hierarchy of sensation.
I still hop on Minecraft from time to time, but I can no longer remember the specific associations I had with places in the game. Like algebra, uneventful days and old technology, they faded into nothingness.
But perhaps it’s time to turn on some music and create new ones.