When I think about where music can take us, how music can affect us and shape us, this is where I travel. An open front door on a cold Monday morning. A man is standing just over the threshold, preparing to go. The porch framing him is a soft winter grey. The terrazzo tiles at his feet are glittering like jewels.
The man’s face is gentle under sleepy-wide, dark-brown eyes. He has a heavy moustache, as many young men do in south Wales in 1984. His hair is glossy-thick, shiny blue-black, the hair of a Celt over cow-like lashes. His familiar smile is forcing itself up at the corners. His body is at odds with it, bent over two walking sticks, mismatching.
A little girl is standing on the doormat. She has a blunt fringe, doughy cheeks, pudgy hands. She is wearing patent T-bar shoes and her school uniform. Five days apart stretch ahead for them. Five days for him to get fixed, to get better.
I love you, he says. I’ll see you on Friday. My father holds my little chin in his hand. And then he says the thing that has stayed with me for the rest of my life: “Let me know who gets to No 1.”
Dad died two days later. He was 33. I was five. He went into hospital on the Monday for an operation to ease his ankylosing spondylitis, the condition that was causing his body to curve, twist and bend. At hospital, he would get a shiny new hip. Once he came out, he would be able to walk more easily, play with me and my baby brother, Jon.
Dad loved pop music. I loved pop music. In those days, the top 40 came out on a Tuesday. Dad’s operation was on the Wednesday. He would be home by the Friday.
I don’t remember how or when I found out what song had got to No 1. That detail is awkwardly cut out of my memory. But I do remember how excited I felt to find out the answer, because it was Pipes of Peace by Paul McCartney, a song about giving things to little children so they could learn, about lighting a candle to love.
Dad went under the anaesthetic on the morning of 11 January 1984. Blood stopped travelling to his brain and it never travelled again.
When I go back to the morning I was last with him, to those cow-like lashes, the porch, the tiles, the thing that stands out more than anything is his request to know something about a song.
I used to think I was just being nostalgic for a sweet, geeky connection between father and daughter. Dad was trusting me to find out a statistic, like a football score, perhaps. But Dad and I weren’t rooting for players to score goals. We were rooting for players who had come together in the studio in the service of a piece of music – something stitched together from wisps of melodies, harmonies and rhythms, something that also, enchantingly, stitched us together. We were rooting for the two of us to be people for whom songs were extensions of their ordinary lives.
When I think of him, Dad always looks like he did in the porch, leaning over on his walking sticks, his eyes full of love, me looking into them for acceptance. When I think of him there, I also think about how he trusted me to tell him a story about a song. It still breaks my heart that I couldn’t stick to that promise.
* * *
There is a song that does something to me when it suddenly appears – from a radio, a TV advert, a car window, a shop’s sound system. For years I’ve wanted to understand the emotional power it unleashes within me. It isn’t Pipes of Peace by Paul McCartney, the song that got to No 1 in the week my father died. It’s the song that was at No 1 just before that.
This song leapt out at me with a particular violence a few years ago, in the cold and dark early weeks of December. I was deep in Abergavenny, our nearest town, swaddled like a baby in my thick winter coat, burrowing through bodies filling busy pavements and shop aisles, bags carving indentations into my fingers. That’s when I heard it.
It had arrived uninvited, with the full force of a tornado. Suddenly I was wrenched away from the gloomy evening, whipped into another dimension, before being dropped into a very different place – but one that felt strangely familiar. I was suddenly in colour, in a landscape of faded browns, oranges and greys, opening a front door to… a cold Monday morning. Sleepy-wide, dark-brown eyes. Shiny blue-black hair. A familiar smile.
Dad is only ever there for a short time when he returns. Sometimes we talk about Jon, my little brother, but more often than not, I just tell him that the song that was No 1 over Christmas isn’t No 1 any more.
Just like that, as an adult thought intrudes and breaks the spell, he’s gone again. I’m in the street, the wind cold, Only You playing itself out. My skin feels alert; my pulse is racing. To everyone else, I’m a woman in a shop doorway, overtaken by the stress of Christmas shopping. Inside, I am separating from my five-year-old self, trying not to shrink back into her completely.
* * *
Only You by Yazoo was released in 1982. Yazoo comprised Vince Clarke, who wrote it, and Alison Moyet, who sang it, her voice as deep and resilient as the sea. Its lyrics reflect on contact and closeness and the loss of both of these things, and a protagonist not able to cope with these brutal realities. Moyet’s vocals soak the song’s sentiments in sadness but also a mood of solemn resignation. All she needed was the love he gave; it was all she needed for another day.
The version of Only You that my dad liked, however, wasn’t by Alison and Vince. It was the festive a cappella version by the Flying Pickets, released a year later. It’s a desperately uncool cover, and I love its implication that my dad wasn’t particularly interested in fashion.
The Flying Pickets’ version of Only You also affects me more than Yazoo’s because of who the Flying Pickets were: a collection of jobbing, singing actors from South Wales. The way they looked was consoling to me: they were unglamorous, dark-haired, short and squat. They were also making music in the middle of the miners’ strike.
But I mainly loved the Flying Pickets’ Only You because my dad loved the Flying Pickets’ Only You. The song seemed to disappear in the 2000s – not having as much star-spangled wattage as 90s confections by Mariah and East 17 to stand out for the radio schedules – but then came streaming services, playlist culture and festive radio stations embracing 24/7 seasonality. Only You now seems to arrive often, in flurries, every winter. When it does, I’m propelled back nearly four decades to my father – in an instant, at its mercy entirely.
* * *
How do songs affect our emotions so profoundly? How can they activate memories instantly? Songs excite and exercise our brains in our earliest years, but they also take us back to our earliest years, and do it quickly. In 2009, Prof Petr Janata of the University of California, Davis, discovered something new and surprising about the brain that might explain why. He’d recently found that the medial prefrontal cortex – part of the more evolved front portion of the brain – was responsible for tracking the movement of melodies in songs. Previously, this had been thought to be the job of the auditory cortex, which dealt in a very straightforward manner with the way we receive and process sound.
Other studies suggested that the medial prefrontal cortex was also integral to the preservation of a person’s sense of self and how they view and define themselves. Janata had a hunch. Given that the processing of our identities and the processing of music happened in the same part of the brain, perhaps this could explain how musical memories carried such profound baggage.
Janata set up a study, playing 13 of his university students 30-second clips of songs while under an fMRI scanner. He set up a school disco of the mind, not under a glitterball but the gleam of a brain-mapping machine. The songs he chose were from the Billboard top 100, from a time when his subjects were between eight and 18 years of age – far away enough in time to trigger a memory. If any sample triggered an autobiographical memory, the students had to describe it to the researchers.
Janata’s hunch proved correct: the songs that promoted the most neural activity in the medial prefrontal cortex were those that prompted vivid recollections. “A piece of familiar music [therefore] serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head,” Janata said. “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.”
I contact Janata and arrange an interview. During our conversation, he speculates that music most commonly takes people back to general periods of their life, rather than notable events. “Often a song has been a soundtrack for them during a particular summer, or a period hanging out with a specific group of friends, or a time spent with significant others. This is why the teenage years, for many people, are quite common triggers for these memories.”
But my memory of Only You and my father is more specific, and connected to a much earlier time in my life. Janata explains how painful memories can also act as sponges for songs. One person in his study struck him specifically, he says. A young woman who had recognised several pieces of music: “She saw these songs trace the trajectory of the relationship with her first boyfriend. With one, she initially remembered being very much in love. With another, he was a year older, off to college, and she was still in high school. Then this song came up that took her back to when she discovered that he was cheating on her.” She described the song in detail. “She said I reminded her of her epiphany that all men are lying, cheating dogs and bastards!”
What moved Janata most about the study, he says, was the potency of memories when familiar music was being played – how the fMRI scanner came to life – and how consistently this seemed to happen in very different people. “We form very strong memories for the music itself. Think about when you’re singing to yourself and not producing any sound too – it’s all just inside your head. We can establish these music memory traces so strongly. There are so many associations formed with the contents of other memories, and music serves as a really effective retrieval cue.”
When we end the call, I search for Only You on Spotify, select Flying Pickets, slide the volume right up into my headphones, click play. It isn’t yet December, so it feels wrong, but playing it affords a very different feeling. I have sought it out, hunted it down. Some of the lyrics and harmonies still prompt twinges of sadness, but they are much easier to control. Perhaps I am in charge of the memory now. Maybe I am the song’s master.
It is strange to think that a memory might be so easily changed – and time would prove that my memory would never metamorphose entirely. But as I get older, I am realising that memories are not dusty video cassettes in a cupboard, waiting to be converted and cleaned. They are constantly reconstructed every time we recall them, as a 2016 Atlantic report by Pulitzer prize-winning science journalist Ed Yong underlined.
In his piece, Memory Lane Has a Three-Way Fork, Yong explains the parts of the brain that have to work together to recreate our memories. First comes the hippocampus, the tiny, seahorse-shaped part near the top of the brain stem. A case study in 1953 showed how vital the hippocampus was: neuroscientist William Beecher Scoville removed it from an epileptic patient, Henry Molaison, who then lost many of his old memories and was unable to create new ones. This is how it would be for all of us, Yong explained, and why the hippocampus is known colloquially as the “seat of memory”.
Yong then detailed a study by Cambridge University professor Jon Simons, which explained more about what happens after the hippocampus is stirred into action. In this study, the subjects were shown distinctive images, then asked to recall them again later, under an fMRI scanner, in as much detail as possible.
When the subjects recalled any image at all, the hippocampus lit up. If they recalled something with precision, an area located higher up in the brain, called the angular gyrus, became active. If the memories were particularly vivid, the precuneus, further back and towards the surface of the brain, went into overdrive. “Very roughly speaking, the hippocampus kicks the process off, the angular gyrus does the heavy lifting, and the precuneus gives us that vibrant, first-person sense of actually remembering something,” Yong wrote.
Memory isn’t just an act of retrieval, but a process of constant reconnection and reconstruction, Yong continued. Memory is therefore liable to be reshaped and re-formed, even if we try to resist reshaping and re-forming it. There is a cruel irony in this activity, of course. While we fight for memory to be unyielding and true, we are constantly reframing it in the contexts in which we are living at that moment – a revelation I found deeply unsettling.
I wanted the memory of my father to be solid. But I had always worried about how much of what I remembered at the front door was real. Reading Yong made this uneasiness even more pronounced. I’d kept telling myself that this memory had become locked away, far from the detritus we accumulate as we get older. But my experience in a shop doorway while Christmas shopping confirmed for me that memory is never simply locked away. It can be opened any time, any place, presumably for anyone.
* * *
Prof Catherine Loveday is a neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster who does fascinating work on reminiscence bumps: the periods of our lives in which we recall songs most vividly. There is a Ted talk by Loveday on YouTube, which begins with an anecdote about going Christmas shopping, having a lovely time with her husband, then suddenly hearing the Johnny Mathis song When a Child Is Born playing. She finds herself “overwhelmed with emotion, tears rolling down [her] cheeks… a complete mess”. The song takes her back to her childhood Christmases. She describes the feeling as being overwhelmed with “grief, nostalgia and happiness… a strange mix”. It was her late stepfather’s favourite song, one that fostered within her family a real sense of belonging.
We Zoom. I tell her about me and Only You. She smiles. “You get this completely visceral response, don’t you? It can be a song you know well, but usually, it’s a song you haven’t listened to for ages, and you have this brief moment where you are absolutely back in time, and it’s so fleeting that you can’t grab it, and you’re back again, and you can never quite get it back.”
I talk about our responses to these songs being involuntary. How does that happen? “I think we are reactivating synaptic connections. Essentially, when you experience anything, like smelling a rose, a unique set of neurons will fire in a unique pattern. Absolutely every sensory experience we have fires a unique set. And when those things fire together a few times, they become functionally linked, so you have a pattern that is always recognised. What I think is happening with music is you are getting that pattern recognition – you haven’t actively sought to remember something, but you have reactivated enough cells in that network that the whole thing has come alive.”
Included in the network of that initial memory, she adds, is everything else that was happening at that time, because an experience is multi-sensory: a set of sights and smells and sounds. “So in effect, for me, that song plays, one thing fires, and it’s linked to the cells that represent my stepdad – it triggers those connections. Memories are essentially networks of functionally linked cells, and even though you can choose to activate them – by actively thinking, ‘Oh, what did we used to do at Christmas time?’ or ‘What did Dad enjoy listening to?’ – something can come in from nowhere and just trigger that memory for you.”
Loveday also thinks music can play a big role in our unconscious memories. I talk about how old I was when my dad died. She brings up her other dad – her real dad, she says – who died when she was six. When she used to think about him, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells often played in her mind, a piece of music that made her feel emotional, even though she couldn’t link it to a specific memory. Early memories are often fragmentary, she adds; a child’s conscious memory doesn’t really kick in consistently until they are five or six, anyway, “the point at which you and I lost our fathers”.
We retain unconscious memories from before that age, however. “I mean, I don’t consciously remember my father liking Tubular Bells, but, when I mentioned it to an old friend, who knew him very well, she said: ‘Oh, he loved that, he bought the album, he played it all the time.’ Somewhere in my unconscious, I had made that association, without any direct knowledge that he liked it.”
When Loveday hears her father’s or her stepfather’s songs, she confesses that she often indulges herself in the emotions she is going through. “You can move away from this kind of memory, but there’s also something beautifully nostalgic and alluring about it that draws me in and makes me want to stop what I’m doing and embrace everything that goes with it.”
I am honest with myself for a moment. Yes, I felt a deep sadness when I was Christmas shopping that night – a peculiar, deep ache – but I also let myself fall into the feelings, so I could feel that crackle of familiar electrical impulses, experience that recognisable release.
“Music wraps you up and comforts you and holds you in a way that not many things do,” she says. “It’s really weird, isn’t it? So fascinating. I feel like I’m being held by this piece of music. Do you?”
I tell Loveday I do.
* * *
My mother’s WhatsApp message arrives one night just before tea a few weeks later. She has been up in the attic and has found something – a piece of cardboard. She has taken a few photographs of it and sent them to me.
This piece of cardboard was folded in half, by me, when I was five years old – five years, eight months and 12 days old, to be precise. After I folded the cardboard in half, I took a pen to it and started drawing on it. I look at the makeshift greetings card now on the small screen. In the front of one photo is a picture of Father Christmas with dashes for eyes, and a Christmas tree. Father Christmas has a speech bubble sticking out of the left of his mouth, like a helium balloon or a stop sign. “Sssh!” the word inside it says.
In another photo, inside the card, there are two drawings. One is of a man in a bed, alone. The bed’s legs stick out metallically, like robot limbs. An upside-down V is his moustache. A huge U is his smile. The man has sticks for arms, stretched out at right angles to his body, drawn like children often draw people, as if they’re extended for a hug. The ink around the character is smudged by small, chubby hands. The other picture is of a wonky oblong with another wonky oblong inside: a television. I had written five words inside it. The Flying Pickets. Only You.
Get Well Soon Daddy, say the other words around it. See You Soon Daddy. I Love You. Thirty Xs, drawn carefully, sit next to a man about to be anaesthetised in a hospital room.
This is a card I must have written to my father the evening after I had seen him for the last time, a day before that week’s new No 1 was announced, and 36 hours before he would unexpectedly die. It is a card that sends a message to me now: that I was telling him that I still had in mind what he’d asked me to do. It is a card I don’t remember, but a card that pins together old, misty recollections in hard copy, in a way that my mind never could. I wrote it on the Monday night, my mother confirms, and she took it into the hospital on the Tuesday. Dad read it on his last full day in the world.
Dad loved pop music. I loved pop music. I had always told myself that the connection between us was strong. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me that at the heart of my last message to him, beating strong, was a song.
• The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives by Jude Rogers is published on 28 April by White Rabbit (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply