Why Music Matters: A Personal Retrospective


Today, I damn near cried at work because I got to witness and viscerally feel the power that music can bring to our lives.

The power of music is undeniable. It literally changes the chemicals in our brains to make us feel good. It creates memories, transports us back in time, makes life more fun, gives us the resolve to heal, and brings us together.

It’s a pretty special thing that touches every part of our lives. After seeing an incredibly emotional performance today, I couldn’t help but think today about all of the important parts of my life that music played factor.

The Set Up

We host artists for acoustic sets at Pandora 2–3 times a week, and today’s guest was Ryan Key of Yellowcard.

You may remember Yellowcard from the 2003 hit “Ocean Avenue.” I came to the performance excited to hear it live. Unbeknown to me, there have been some challenging times that have fallen upon Ryan and his family in the past year.

Ryan opened the performance telling a vulnerable, gut wrenching story: his wife, a professional snowboarder, was injured while training last year, breaking her back. She became paralyzed as a result of the injury, driving the couple to Denver for physical therapy.

While there, Ryan and his wife didn’t have many friends nearby. They rented an apartment while she went to rehabilitate and adjust to her new physical reality. In that time, Ryan took to music to find the words to heal their shaken lives. The result was “One Bedroom,” a love song he wrote to his wife, recounting his undying love for her — strengthened through this trying time.

Performing to a room of strangers at Pandora, Ryan shared his story with us, giving us insight into his pain and passion for the love of his life. The performance was delivered with grit, passion, pain and a clear intense love for his wife.

I found myself mesmerized. Tearing up. Thoughts rushing to my head: what would happen if something bad would ever happen to my wife, Lauren? How lucky are we to both be healthy and living the lives we aspire for? How lucky am I to have found someone that I equally treasure every moment with? How grateful have I been for everything in my life? Holy shit, it can be gone in the blink of an eye. Have I taken anything for granted?

The rush was intense. It was undeniable. As I collected myself and moved on with the day, I found myself thinking… that song is going to help countless couples make it through hard times together.

It also drove back a rush of memories of the times when music got me through hard times and when it played factor in the highest of highs. Music is a powerful drug. It matters to strengthen our relationships; it matters to get us through the hard times.

Looking back through my life so far, there are countless songs that have been formative in my identity… and there will be more. Thinking through them has been humbling and fun. If you haven’t ever spent the time to do it, I highly encourage the activity.

We each have the songs that have made us stronger, happier and just flat out bring us closer to people. At the risk of oversharing with the world, I wanted to share the songs that have provided some of the strongest memories in my life so far.

As I reflected on them, the reason I loved them was because of the people in my life and the role that they had in forming my identity. That’s the power of music. It’s a way to express ourselves and our feelings, without the awkward parts of doing so (except for ages 13–24, see more on that later).

An Early Love

The first song I remember ever loving was Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract.”

A true hit for the ages.

I don’t know whether it’s because I was 5 when this song came out and the music video is basically a street vibey-er Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or whether it was because I had my first crush on Paula Abdul, but this song was amazing.

My sister, who is six years older than me, tried (and failed) to teach me the dance from the music video. Throughout the course of my life, my sister has been not only one of my closest friends and support systems, but also like a second mom: helping me with my homework, explaining to me how to talk to girls, and all the other important stuff that comes from a loving sibling relationship.

I don’t hear this song that much, but every now and then, it’ll come on and the memories flood back. It’s cool to have a song that reminds you how awesome having an older sister can be.

Family and music are a powerful tie. Not only for the fun memories, but for the scary ones too. When I was 11, my family and I were on a roadtrip, our 1991 Mitsubishi Galant was involved in a 12 car pile up incited by a tractor-trailor that left several people critically injured.

Through all the carnage and debris (and totaled Galant), my parents, sister and I made it out with only a few nicks and scrapes. I’ll never forget the look of fear on my family’s face as we exited the car through the now broken windows, gathered together in a big bear hug, counting how lucky we were to be alive and well.

The strangest part of that memory is that I vividly remember the moment that the collision happened: my sister asleep in the back seat, my parents chatting, and I was looking out the window… listening to Hootie & the Blowfish’ “Only Wanna Be With You” through the car radio.

Feelings toward that song aside, every time it comes up, I get transported back to that moment on the side of the highway in the mid-90s. Embracing my family; feeling lucky that we had each other. A feeling that was reinforced today.

The Suburban Angst Meets the Birds & the Bees

Growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, I had a lot of angst that was permeating through the 90s, thanks to bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Green Day.

I vividly remember listening to the lyrics of the Dookie album, not understanding what they meant, but hey — thanks Billie Joe and the gang for inspiring me to ask my parents what masturbation meant in the song “Longview.”

Green Day’s Dookie: the strangest way to incite a talk about the birds & the bees with your parents

So when my future kid(s) ask me about the birds & the bees, I’ll be sure to keep that story on hand.

In line with the days of the great Alt Rock emergence, I was also increasingly becoming super excited about computers and programming them. Getting my first Compaq computer, equipped with Windows 95, got me fired up to start flirting with my first programming language, Visual Basic.

The idea of creating things with computers was wildly infectious. My first programs were basically just buttons that you pressed in the Windows interface that then danced around the screen or changed colors. While I was hardly the next Bill Gates, my love for creativity built upon code started to grow… right in line with my love for a band that happened to have a music video built right into Windows 95: Weezer.

Ooo-wee-ooo that guy looks just like Buddy Holly

Kicking the tires on Visual Basic was often met with quick breaks to watch one of the craziest phenomena I remember witnessing: watching music videos on demand on my *computer*. In a world of YouTube and everything on-demand, the cool factor of being able to listen and see “Buddy Holly” got my nerdy gears spinning.

To this day, Weezer’s Blue Album is my favorite album of all time. From “Buddy Holly” to “Undone” to “Say It Ain’t So,” I remember developing a passion for building things while listening to this cassette on constant repeat.

Moving Into the Awkward Years

Music hasn’t been all love. The teen years really saw to that. They really embraced the awkward angst that a true suburban teenager should experience. Music got me through those times, and even created some real kneeslappers in retrospect.

With too many moments to choose, I give you, the highlights of adolescent angst:

“Juicy” by Notorious BIG: I found a strange connection to this song. A guy who came from humble beginnings worked hard and found success. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the lyrics were rooting what I wanted for myself: a way to gain more opportunities. It was the American Dream mixed in with some innuendo and other things I didn’t fully understand… but the message was received.

“Hardnock Life” by Jay-Z: This song was the one that solidified my love for hip hop. Catchy beats met with stories of struggle and perseverance: it opened the world beyond my suburban bubble. I mean sure, did a 13 year old suburban kid in Murrysville, PA really think that the struggle of slinging crack in Brooklyn map closely to the struggle of acne and general timidity toward girls? Yes, but in retrospect music from a different part of the world was pretty formative in building tolerance and gaining access to experiences that weren’t otherwise prevalent in my sheltered life.

“God Must Have Spent a Little More Time On You” by *N’Sync: The song that I tried to serenade to a girl I had a crush on. Turns out a lack of “training” in the singing department doesn’t work well. I didn’t have a girlfriend until I went to college.

“Slippin’” by DMX: Honestly have no idea why, but I thought this song was incredibly deep and reflective of my struggles as a sophomore with braces in high school. “Hey yo, I’m slippin’/I’m fallin’/I can’t get up” pushed me to get through the fairly regular bullying I was exposed to. There was power in the words of X that pushed me through. While it sounds overly dramatic now, I look back on this song and thinking that I’m not the only one with problems and things would get back on track.

“Sweetness” by Jimmy Eat World: To this day, the lines “If you’re listening, whooo-oh-oa” take me straight back to my senior year of high school. Braces were off, college was around the corner and my confidence was starting to form. I was becoming me, and it was a cool thing… being the nerdy kid who liked computers wasn’t a bad thing. I love this song for reminding me of the time in my life that I realized that.

The College Years: What? Okay?

Leaving the suburban life and entering college was quite the liberation, even though I only went to school 20 miles away from my parents’ house. Most of these are a blur (for reasons not worth including). Some highlights:

“Hey Ma” by Cam’ron: Freshman year orientation. My first night of college, I drank way too much, vomited on my dorm room floor. Great first impression to my new roommate. Ugh.

“Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly: Before all his weird stuff, this song was the party jam of college. Every night began with this song… until it was replaced by 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” and then later he disrupted himself with “Candy Shop,” and then later supplanted by Usher’s “Yeah.” We all have these songs. They’re awesome.

It wasn’t only partying in college. I *really* got in touch with my emo side.

“You Know How I Do” by Taking Back Sunday: So obviously desperate, so desperately obvious… it spoke to me. I had dated some girls in college that were forgettable… and I wasn’t as awesome as I wanted to be. TBS knew what it was about. My friends loved to tell me how cool I was for listening to this.

“Konstantine” by Something Corporate: Oh man, slow piano, soulful lyrics. This was how to get in touch with the heartbreak of unrequited love. There was solace in others experiencing break ups.

That was pretty much college: party music with some layered learning of what it means to be in a relationship. Then came the real world.

Adulthood: Get Me Out of Banking

My banking savior: Justin Timberlake

Post college was pretty brutal. I went into working for a job that was a bit soul sucking: building high frequency trading systems. Odd working hours plus some sub-optimal people made this a forgetable time. Music got me through, mostly Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds album. I would listen on the subway each day. The happy sounds were an escape that countered the unhappy sounds I was about to be subject to.

I moved to San Francisco in 2007 and the world felt like it became my oyster. I found the place that I loved to live, and the songs all just melded together with making awesome memories in a new place. When I hear songs like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah,” I’m transported to my adult liberation. There were some fun songs along the way, but my favorite moments in adulthood were when I met my now wife… and I had no idea who the bands were that she listened to.

My Pandora Love Story

After I went on the last first date of my life, I thought (and still do) that she was the most interesting person I had ever met. She had traveled to interesting places, had a loving family, told interesting stories, and really loved these bands Passion Pit, Phoenix and TV on the Radio.

My problem: I had never heard of them. She didn’t need to know that. So I created a Pandora station with those artists so that I could better understand her. It turned out that I loved their music and it helped me grow closer in my newfound relationship. A few years later, we were married.

And now, I look back with much fondness to the station that helped me build the foundation of my relationship with my wife.

The Pandora station I made when I met my wife.

We’ve shared countless music memories together, from dancing to “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” to some (video redacted) “Teach Me How to Dougie” dance-offs. Dinner parties with our friends listening to Huey Lewis & The News, as well as Astrud Gilberto — the memories keep growing.

Unleashing the Power of Music

There are tens, if not hundreds, of other songs that have built these memories in my life. Everybody out there has their own.

Looking back on these songs is a fun trip down memory lane. It reminds of the fragile moments, the formative moments, and the down right awesome moments.

Our lives are all about the memories we create and the connections we build with people. Music is the fabric that connects us to these memories and people.

As we look to the future, days like today are days that remind me why I work where I work. I work at a place that is a time machine for people: it takes them back to their past, and even more importantly is a machine for the future… laying the tracks for even more memories and connections to be drawn.

Music is a powerful beast. Today that beast was captured in Ryan Key sharing his story of love conquering a challenging time. Who knows what tomorrow will bring… but I’m damn sure proud and happy that it will bring more music.

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