The soundtrack of our lives: Researchers collect musical memories

man wearing headphones in front of a microphone

Chris Impey, University Distinguished Professor of astronomy, discusses his musical memories as part of the archive project.

Kay He

The most memorable moments of our lives often come with a soundtrack. Humans across cultures and generations have a propensity for recalling music and connecting it with memories.

Brian Moon, an associate professor of practice in the University of Arizona Fred Fox School of Music, and Dan Kruse, an independent musical researcher with two degrees in ethnomusicology from UArizona's Fred Fox School of Music and part-time radio announcer for Arizona Public Media, have launched an effort to see what can be learned from lifetimes of musical memories.

man wearing headphones in front of a microphone

Brian Moon, Associate Professor of Practice, Fred Fox School of Music

Kay He

Lifetimes of Listening: The Arizona Musical Memory Archive aims to collect, record and analyze musical memories from people of all walks of life through a series of in-person, one-on-one interviews. In addition to everyday music lovers, Kruse and Moon have spoken to some big names, including Grammy Award winners John Batiste and David Harrington, a member of Kronos Quartet. The effort picked up steam at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March, when Moon and Kruse conducted dozens of interviews at the UArizona Wonder House. Moon and Kruse continue to conduct interviews as they meet or hear about people they believe will be good subjects.

The team is also launching a podcast to discuss themes that have emerged in the interviews, including communal musical experiences and grief and loss. The first three episodes are available on the archive website. The podcast will be available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other popular platforms beginning in October.

Moon and Kruse talked to University of Arizona News about the connection we have to music, why it is so strongly tied to our memories and what they have learned so far through nearly 60 interviews.

man wearing headphones in front of a microphone

Dan Kruse, Independent music researcher and art-time radio announcer for Arizona Public Media

Kay He

Q: Why do memories attached to music seem to be so strong?

Moon: I believe it's because they are intertwined with the feelings of the moment. Music, when it's associated with something that happened to someone in the past, provides a soundscape for the feelings of that moment. It fills out the memory and makes it richer.

Kruse: My understanding is that music, unlike many other forms of sensory experience, stimulates many different parts of the brain, since it has so many different components: lyrics, harmony, melody, texture, form, tempo. Add to that music's significant emotional impact, and our association of music with important people, places, events, relationships and other experiences, and the result is a form of memory that is more impactful and long-lasting than many others.

Q: You've said music memories from people's teens and 20s tend to be the strongest. What have you learned about why that is?

Moon: It's a time when many people are more comfortable having big feelings that associate and link up with music. It's also a time when people begin to get more autonomy and begin to express their identity through their taste.

Researchers have verified this link to music from a person's teens and 20s through a range of methods. I find some of the work with dementia patients moving, particularly because I associate it with my grandmother. At a time when she couldn't recognize or identify the names of any living person in her family, she could sing along to pop songs from the 1930s. Her experience is not unique.

Kruse: During these important "formative years," young adults are maturing – emotionally, socially, cognitively and in other ways. Memories of any sort from these years have a special meaning and emotional power, and since music is so deeply connected with these experiences, it tends to be music that we remember for a long time and with great fondness for those important times in our lives.

Q: Are these trends exclusive or stronger in musicians or "serious" music listeners? Or is the pattern the same in most people you have talked to?

Moon: I think some people are more naturally reflective about their memories, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves musicians or serious listeners. However, some of the most powerful musical memories people have shared with the archive were by people who were almost unwilling to talk, because they didn't consider themselves to be musical. Everyone I've spoken to, if they'll allow me to talk to them, has experienced a moment when music was important to them. Many have reflected back on that moment or have had a flashback because they've heard the music in a different context or a different time.

Kruse: I don't know that I've specifically found that the stories of one type of person are more memorable or stronger. Even non-musicians have intense relationships with music in their lives. The difference might be that musicians or serious music lovers might have a deeper academic understanding of a particular aspect of what they hear and respond to, like harmony, melody or rhythm. One might think that people who make their livings as performing musicians might be jaded by the experience, but I find that the opposite is actually true; such folks never seem to lose their love of and passion for music and musical experience. 

Q: Can you give an example or two of some of the most interesting memories that have been shared with you?

Moon: There are two that come to mind, but it's really hard to choose. I was grateful for a man named Michael Weinstein, who walked in off the street at SXSW last March and shared a story of how karaoke became so important in his life. He introduced me to competitive karaoke – something I had never known existed! You can hear his longer interview at the Lifetimes of Listening archive.

I also enjoyed speaking with University of Arizona professor Katie Prudic about her experience of music in the context of roller derby. That interview is also posted in the archive.

Kruse: I'm deeply touched by many of the musical memories we have gathered. People who tell of deep, meaningful musical experiences with their parents are quite moving to me. A couple people have come to the interview really prepared to share their memories in a special way. For example, Diana Daly (associate professor of practice in the School of Information) spoke about a poem she wrote about the musical artist Meatloaf.

Q: How can the work you're doing benefit researchers, caregivers or others who might want to tap into these memories?

Moon: We are still trying to understand how our work can complement and extend other's research. I believe that the kinds of conversations we are recording for the archive will always have a value for caregivers and family members. I recorded a musical memory from my father-in-law, and as I was doing so, I thought how wonderful this story will be for my infant son when he grows up. He may not ever have a conversation about significant musical memories with his grandfather, but it will be in the archive.

In the first few episodes of the podcast based upon the archive, we brought in a historian, a psychologist, a behavioral scientist and a music theorist, all of whom found something in the memories we've gathered that lines up with their research.

Kruse: I think we're still figuring this out. Our fascination is with the depth and breadth of musical experience and how people experience it as memories. Eventually, we'd like to apply more quantitative methods to an analysis of the many interviews we've gathered. Many of our subjects share how meaningful the experience is of sharing their memories with us – so there's a real value to everyone involved so far.

Q: What is next for the Lifetimes of Listening project?

Moon: I hope we can grow the musical memories archive steadily throughout the coming year. Dan and I are both trying to ensure that it represents many different perspectives. I hope that we find some specific ways to connect with other researchers, and that we can continue to find ways to make these stories relevant to people in Tucson.

Kruse: A possible colloquium at the Fred Fox School of Music this fall along with expansion of our podcasts. We are seeking funding to support expanding the project and looking at potentially partnering with other departments on campus or elsewhere to create a more interdisciplinary research effort.

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