How is it that you can remember the lyrics of your favorite song from your junior year in high school, but you have trouble remembering what you had for breakfast? Simply put, there is a strong connection between music and memories.
In 2009, Dan Kruse (MM ’12, Ethnomusicology) was teaching a pop and rock music survey course at the Fred Fox School of Music. For one of his assignments, he asked students to present a story about their memories of engaging with music at some point in their lives.
A “musical memory” project.
Later, musicologist Brian Moon, associate professor at the Fred Fox School of Music, inspired by the positive results from Kruse’s course, began incorporating the project into his classes.
“For me, this project began as a way to interact with students and validate their experiences with music,” Moon said. “In the general education courses that I often teach, a mix of musicians and non-musicians, passionate music fans, and indifferent listeners coexist. Drawing their attention to how music has played an important place in their lives is often a great first step to getting them to invest themselves in exploring new music.”
The powerful connection between music and memories
From those early roots, those class assignments have recently grown into a new initiative for Kruse and Moon that includes an archive featuring individuals’ musical memories, a podcast, “Lifetimes of Listening,” and an appearance at SXSW 2022 at the University of Arizona’s Wonder House. At the Story Studio within the Wonder House, Moon and Kruse interviewed individuals to explore their musical memories.
It all started with the concept: there is a powerful connection between music and memory.
“It’s extraordinarily strong,” Kruse said. “Musical memories — of the music itself, and life events and experiences connected to music — are among the strongest we have. As documented in the film, “Alive Inside,” people who are deep in dementia seem to “come alive” when exposed to music of their early lives — especially their teens and early 20s. This strength of musical memory is reiterated to us each time we interview another subject for our project. Much research has been done on this topic by, among others, Oliver Sacks and Dan Cohen (the social worker featured in the film “Alive Inside”).”
“I think the thing that has surprised me the most is how a conversation about music and memory becomes so quickly personal and vulnerable for many people,” said Moon. “Music is profoundly tied up with people’s identities and feelings … they often begin to tell us things that profoundly moved them or shaped who they are.”
The archive includes dozens of interviews of students and regular music lovers, but also a few well-known names, like Grammy Award winners Jon Batiste and David Harrington of Kronos Quartet, and University of Arizona astrophysicist Chris Impey.
What have you been listening to lately?
MOON: I find myself listening to a mix of old and new often. I just checked to see the last few things I’ve listened to, and it was: Apunti, U of A’s Puerta/Vazquez classical guitar duo, the album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, and a playlist comprised of songs from the band Cake. I tend to listen to classical chamber, choral, and guitar music more often than other genres. I have enjoyed 3rd Secrets debut album. It’s a band formed by Kris Novesellic (bass player from Nirvana) and a handful of other 90s rock stars.
KRUSE: I recently discovered a band from the Boston area named Lake Street Dive. Somehow this group has taken hold of me in a big way. They exhibit a wonderful and vibrant togetherness that shows up both on their CD’s and in life performances. My partner has resumed piano lessons and is diligently practicing a solo by 18th century composer Baldassare Galuppi; it’s delightful to hear this lovely piece being practiced in my home on a regular basis.
Plus, I’m currently producing a radio story about Argentine Tango and traditional musical genres of Argentina and Chile — working with this music in the story, performed by a couple of local musical performers and scholars, has also been meaningful to me in recent weeks. And, I’ve been spending time listening to jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton, who appeared in Tucson a couple weekends ago.
What have been the highlights of the project so far? Jon Batiste, Chris Impey, others?
MOON: Those two interviews are incredible, and worth hearing! I think the two things I’ve most enjoyed in the project are the ways it’s allowed me to collaborate with Dan, and the opportunities it’s provided me to have deep conversations with acquaintances and students. I had worked with Dan a bit on his documentary about Tucson’s rock record label, Zoom Records. Lifetimes of Listening, though, has allowed me to see how he approaches audio engineering, editing, interviewing, and storytelling. He’s got a lifetime of experience and I’m really enjoying learning from him.
KRUSE: It certainly was a thrill interviewing these fascinating individuals, as well as David Harrington of Kronos Quartet, no question. But the highlights for me are hearing people’s musical memories — some of which are so unique and touching. A couple in particular stand out for me like Jason Carder, Whitney Morgan, Hans York, and Chris Maluszynski. And, naturally, being a part of Wonder House in Austin at SXSW was a highlight and allowed us to interview a great many interesting folks.
MOON: I’ve been surprised at how asking someone about a musical memory often is an easy way to get them to talk about themselves. More than once, I’ve been surprised at how quickly the stories go from superficial to profound.
KRUSE: Now and then a musical memory is shared with us that’s amazingly unexpected. Ones about singing in a national karaoke competition … or the connection between music and Roller Derby (!) … or someone’s obsession with a particular musical artist (Meatloaf, Weird Al).
Any trends or common threads?
MOON: Yes! We are pulling out threads and trends for the Lifetimes of Listening podcast. As groups of memories suggest a common theme or experience, we try and find someone who could provide an informed perspective on those musical memories and interview them for the podcast. Each episode reflects a theme, like family, communal experiences, grief and loss, musical elements (or the love of musical sounds), homesickness, etc.
KRUSE: Great question. There is a commonality of experience — the ways in which music takes us back to a particular place and time … the shared experience of music having a “transformative” power in our lives … musical connection to parents and siblings.
What would you say if you were to record your musical memory?
MOON: At this point, I’d want to say too much! Dan and I often share some of our musical memories in the podcast to help establish a theme. A short version of my musical past would travel from Simon and Garfunkel (when I decided to become a guitarist), marching band versions of 1960s soul music, singing choral music in European cathedrals, and going to a lot of rock concerts in the 1990s. There’s so much more …
KRUSE: I might share a moment, probably aged 10 or so, when a childhood friend and I started harmonizing quite spontaneously to the Beatles’ “If I Fell,” and I began to see a tender musical side of myself I hadn’t recognized previously. The overwhelmingly powerful sensation of playing triangle (of all things) on the last movement of Moussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Playing drums with the UA Pep Band in the Alamo Dome in front of 30,000 fans when the Wildcats were in the Sweet 16.
What’s the end goal?
MOON: I hope this project and the archive becomes a widely referenced resource by researchers, and widely listened to by people who enjoy a good story about music.
KRUSE: For me, a deeper understanding and appreciation of what I call “the human relationship to music” and sharing that appreciation with others.