If upon hearing, “It’s the story of a lovely lady…” you are instantly reminded of your childhood, you know the power of musical memory. Songs tell the stories of our lives. They remind us of a special day, a good time, a first love and even a favorite car.

It is a scientific fact that music is one of our most persistent memories and indeed can enhance and help in the recall of people, places and events.  Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and author of the book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, details how music is stored in the brain.  His studies reveal the music we learn and love in our teens and early 20s are the musical styles that will remain our favorites throughout our lives. These are the tunes that are most closely linked to our memories.

In a second runner up category of musical memories, are the musical selections of our parents. The songs we heard on the car radio as Mom drove us to school, the folk songs Dad taught us over campfires and the romantic favorites our parents played for themselves and we listened in from the stairs when we were supposed to be asleep.

We may know some of the tunes our children enjoy, but we are not as focused on their music because these are the years when we are most focused on jobs, bills, childrearing and social obligations. Thus, we do not remember our children’s favorite songs as well as our own or our parents musical selections.

The proof of Sacks’ scientific discoveries can be seen and heard monthly during concerts presented by the Chichester Alumni Community Band. The band, formed by residents who share a common bond of having played in their individual high school bands, plays a monthly concert at a nursing home. During the concert, Audrey Murphy, band director, asks the residents – with an average age of 85 – music  trivia.

Murphy is never disappointed with the response. It may be 30 plus years since a resident traveled to the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, NJ to see Frank Sinatra. When the band plays, “My Way”, hands go up around the room with the answer of the name of the singer.  And often one resident will beam as she recalls the night she and her husband saw Old Blue Eyes in person.

Play a familiar television theme, from “Hawaii 50” to “Hogan’s Heroes”, and residents can recall what night the show aired 40 years ago! This memory recall is also strong among residents suffering from dementia.

As a guitarist playing music at local nursing homes, I have many, many times witnessed residents who have stopped speaking due to advanced Alzheimer’s disease sing all the words of a favorite hymn or a Christmas song they sang as a child.  They are able to remember music even when they have forgotten how to read or the name of their child. The power of that musical memory can often help a person with a failing memory remember a loved one or an event tied to a tune.

When I play, “Always”, residents smile with the happy memory of a special love. I often hear, “My mother sang that song when she washed the dishes” when I am playing any George M. Cohan song.

“On the Way to Cape May”, has residents sharing their stories of summers down the shore. And a resident who served her country as a WAVE during  WWII said when I played, “I’ll Be Seeing You”, she could remember in detail the moment her brother stepped on a train bound for Paris.

I have also seen the ways in which music recall has physical health benefits.  Residents entering a concert with sore muscles and painful joints often leave smiling and even singing!  

The power of the musical memory is so strong that for a brief moment a patient can leave their pain behind.  A fact confirmed by The National Institute of Nursing Research who found music can reduce stress and pain levels.  The National Institute of Education and Health Sciences reported music tempo can affect and improve mood and heart rate – a fact well known by everyone who has ever felt a bit down and turned on a radio to lighten their spirits!

Musical tastes and selections may be misunderstood between the generations but the power of music crosses all age groups from The Rat Pack to the Fab Four and ties notes to memories for a lifetime.

 Author:  Gloria Hoffner is the owner of Guitar with Gloria providing sing-a-longs at senior centers, retirement communities and adult day centers. On the web at: www.GuitarwithGloria.com