Bopping back and forth with the preset buttons on my car radio the other day, I switched from classical music on NPR to classic country music on an oldies station just in time to catch a song that transported me back in time.
The song was “Bop,” performed by Dan Seals, written by Paul Davis and Jennifer Kimball. (Here’s a video if you want to hear it. Warning: put your dancing shoes on first.)
This is the song I learned to jitterbug to. Just a few notes of it take me right back to dance classes, circa 1985. Seals and his baby bopped all night long, over and over, while earnest couples practiced on a well-used hardwood floor. First the basic step (one-and, two-and, back-step) and then the spins and twirls and moves—some of which, my late husband and I discovered, are a challenge when one partner is a foot taller than the other.
Music is one of the most powerful evokers of memory that we have. I don’t know enough about the brain to know why this is so, but I know from my own experience how well it works. A song pops up randomly on the radio or TV (or even, with unsettling frequency in recent years, in an elevator), and the memories associated with it promptly unroll with full color and vivid emotion. It happens often, with a great many songs, but here are just a few examples:
“Pomp and Circumstance.” I’m sure I can’t be the only one who responds to its first stately notes with an impulse to stand up straight, make sure our mortarboards are level, and process slowly toward the stage with that step-pause, step-pause gait peculiar to graduates and bridesmaids.
When the long-time band director at my kids’ high school retired, I was disappointed that his final concert didn’t include “Hot Cross Buns.” The simple little tune would have taken every student in the band and every parent in the audience back to those first days of clarinet or flute or oboe lessons. We’d have been hearing it in our minds as it sounded then, played with the hesitant, excruciating exactness of beginners just trying to figure out their instruments. Maybe the band director didn’t want to bring back that much emotion. Or maybe, after 40-some years, he simply couldn’t stand to hear it one more time.
And when I hear “The Marines’ Hymn,” it doesn’t evoke mental images of marching soldiers. Instead, it takes me back to a handful of kids in a one-room country school house, singing with gusto while one of them (me) plunks out the melody on an old upright piano. Most of us had only the vaguest idea where the “shores of Tripoli” were and probably couldn’t have told you whether Montezuma was a person or a place, but the song was in our battered old songbooks and we liked the tune.
Outside of science fiction, no one has been able yet to build a time-travel machine. At least so we think. We don’t realize that most of us already have time machines right in our own homes. They might be mp3 players, sophisticated audio systems, simple CD players, or even outdated tape players. Whatever technology they use, they all have amazing, almost magical power. With them, we can time-travel whenever we want to. All it takes is music.