American poet Maya Angelou once wrote “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness”. It is an exquisite thing to hear a piece of music and be transported to the emotions and memories of a special time or place.
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There can be a duality to conjuring past times through music, however. Our festive memories aren’t all sunshine and roses. At least one third of Australians experience relational and emotional difficulty at Christmas, flowing from financial stress, maybe a family member predictably overdoing the eggnog and going rogue, the stress of living up to expectations come Christmas lunch, or a sense of personal isolation in comparison to past years. As a result, festivities can unfortunately often give rise to feelings of loneliness. Or perhaps perennial familial tensions are stoked come December. Music that you associate with such experiences may reignite underlying emotions, good or bad, without much conscious thought on your part.
Our connection with emotion-laden memories accessible via music is made possible due to music activating our entire limbic system (involved in emotion, motivation, learning and memory processes). When we’ve listened to music repeatedly during a specific type of event (like Christmas), or an emotionally charged event, it can become tethered to associated emotions of that time, if not overt memories. On hearing the music again, memories and associated emotions come rushing back. In this way, listening to familiar music can evoke a strong sense of ‘feeling of knowing’ and with this, specific autobiographical emotional memories. Especially when difficult events are fresh this can simply be too much to bear, whereas over time music can offer a savoured – albeit bittersweet – window back to a time that was.
An older friend of mine who lost her spouse several years back is overcome with emotion every time she hears JS Bach’s cello suites. Her husband used to play them, just for his own satisfaction. She finds them full of joy and intensely painful. She tells me she doesn’t listen to them by herself because doing so exacerbates underlying feelings of loss and ‘aloneness’. However, in the concert hall she cherishes the opportunity to hear them, explaining that the presence of so many others listening with her and knowing that they too have their own experiences and connections with the music, provides her comfort and leaves her feeling more connected both with the music and other people. In this way, she says she keeps her beloved close, and she thinks that in time perhaps she’ll be able to enjoy Bach suites just in her own company again too.
For me, there are works that transport me to the most treasured bits of my childhood. Even now as I sing in my mind’s eye “This little babe” I feel joy and excitement rising as I experience the rush of riding at rapid pace through Britten’s Ceremony of Carols with my fellow school choristers. And so, I curl between the notes of music conjured in memory, without any instruments or speakers in cooee; a welcome space for a time.
Given music can trigger emotions very quickly, my mission for you and me this Christmas is for us to help someone we know feel more connected and thought of, with classical music as the fulcrum. A music-accompanied cuppa, a conversation, a concert ticket of festive music with a dose of reminiscing and critique thrown in as a night cap. If you are feeling lonely, consider heading along to hear live festive music. Chances are the experience will impact positively on your brain (e.g., oxytocin release) and will support activation of your parasympathetic nervous system (reducing blood pressure, heart rate and providing solace at this busy time).
Also, if I might add, do try to articulate your feelings and your memories as you feel comfortable to do so. This might mean calling a family member or friend, or the lovely folks at Beyond Blue to discuss concerns big or small, or Lifeline for crisis support. Classical music is a treasured, living repository of memories old and new. Using it to make new memories or access old ones is another of the gifts it can afford us.
Beyond Blue: Call 1300 22 4636, 24 hours/seven days a week, or visit beyondblue.org.au
Lifeline: Call 13 11 14, 24 hours/seven days a week, or visit lifeline.org.au