Linking and un-linking songs from memories
When a song you love becomes a song you hate (and vice versa)
When I’m in an argumentative mood, I point out a very unpopular opinion: I like Alicia Keys’ version of “How Come You Don’t Call” way more than the original Prince version, and I’ve never been a Prince fan. I get attacked in droves, but I meant what I said. However, there’s another reason I choose to rile people up when I listen to this song; it distracts me from the memory associated with hearing it.
When this remake came out in 2001, I was really going through it over a guy I was dating at the time. It was the kind of scene you’d see in TV sitcoms — staring at my phone nonstop, checking my blocked text messages (because I’d blocked him but still wanted to see if he texted me) and annoyed at the reason we’d fallen out. I was literally wondering: “How come you don’t call me anymore?” While this thought was going through my mind, I was also sitting in a college auditorium with a group of friends, watching a black ballet performance to this Alicia Keys’ remake. I can still visualize the way a ballerina leaped onto a ladder when Keys sang in a higher pitch. I linked the song to him, but it also always makes me think of that ballet routine.
It’s the beauty and the curse of music therapy. I’ve previously interviewed psychologists who swear by how useful music is in expressing feelings that cannot always be addressed in words. And sometimes these songs are to our detriment. I heard Brownstone’s beautiful “If You Love Me” song on a car radio immediately after the viewing for my maternal grandmother. From that point on, I hated that song and have asked a few drivers to change the station if I hear it on the radio. So far, no one has challenged me on it. Should it ever happen, I will get out of the car at the first red light or stop sign. It has been that way for 25 years.
I believe it is much easier to disconnect from a song if your feelings don’t mirror the lyrics. Unlike Ne-Yo in 2005, I wasn’t “So Sick” of love songs. But I was heartbroken in 2012 when I first heard Jerrod Niemann’s two-year-old song “What Do You Want”— and I played it on constant rotation at work to oddly make myself more miserable. (I was going through a country music phase).
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But then in 2015, when Big Sean released “I Don’t F**K With You,” I couldn’t have been in a happier state of mind. This song sounded angry and so did everyone singing it — man, I could’ve used that energy in 2001 and 2012. I was too busy blasting Mary J. Blige’s 2007 song “Just Fine” even though no one seems to like “Happy Mary.”
And when I wanted my mother to cheer up after she’d come home from a hospital, I pulled her into the living room to dance to Michael Franti & Spearhead’s 2008 hit “Say Hey (I Love You).” I should certainly be sad about the song because it is linked to the first time I’d ever seen her get really sick, but all I keep thinking about was how much fun she had Chicago stepping around the room. (This is still a song we dance to whenever it comes on. It was her ring tone for awhile.)
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While all of these songs may put me in a bad and good mood, how do you then “un-link” a song so you can control the memory associated with it?
Learning to block memories out to avoid linking them to songs
I’ve only found one trick that works to make old songs become easier to hear — overplaying them or making new memories with them. According to Psychology Today, “If you haven’t heard a song in years, the neural tapestry representing that song stays purer and the song will evoke stronger specific memories of a time and place from your past. The memories linked to overplayed songs can become diluted because the neural network is constantly being updated.”
But if you play the song long after the memory or the person is no longer in your life, you may be able to create a new “mental movie.”
When I found out that Tupac passed away, I was standing in the middle of a huge auditorium while R&B heartthrobs Immature were performing onstage. But I was already so connected to “Playtyme Is Over,” “On Our Worst Behavior” and “We Got It” that I couldn’t tell you what song was playing before or after the surprise announcement — only that memory of me being at that concert.
In that case, I was hell bent on keeping my “old” memories of Immature’s albums and not connecting them to the death of one of the most lyrically gifted emcees to date. I blocked out the entire announcement and enjoyed the concert, and would not acknowledge this news until the next day. (Full disclosure: I was more of a Biggie fan during that debacle, so that certainly helped.)
Making new memories with songs you’ve grown to hate
Although I still haven’t fully figured out how to disconnect great songs like “How Come You Don’t Call” and “What Do You Want” from the two men I associate with the song, I have been able to do a pretty decent job of disassociating plenty of other songs to memories. (Don’t ask me about “If You Love Me.” It’s never going to happen nor do I have the desire to try.)
Recommended Read: “The accidental jazz fan ~ The mental health benefits of music therapy”
As Psychology Today mentions, “… a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye.”
But if you play the song long after the memory or the person is no longer in your life, you may be able to create a new “mental movie.” So whatever song makes you miserable, mad or melancholy, try blasting it through your speakers at some big event. You never know. You may learn to hear and see it through different ears and eyes with a separate group of people.
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