Let's try a little experiment. Listen along in your head to this song, by the Steve Miller Band:
“Some people call me the space cowboy
Some call me the gangster of love
Some people call me Maurice ...”
There! Did you hear something? Did your brain automatically insert the sound of an electric guitar recreating a wolf whistle? You know: “Wee-whoooooo!”
If you've heard “The Joker” one or two or 300 times over the past few decades, chances are it did. And chances are you didn't consciously decide to make that sound.
Your brain just did it for you.
That's the sort of phenomenon that rock 'n' roller and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin unpacks in his best-selling book “This Is Your Brain On Music,” an exploration of the connection between music and the human brain, and how the songs we hear affect our experiences, our emotions, our memories and our lives.
The book isn't a particularly easy lift; Levitin spends as much time explaining the inner workings of our various lobes and synapses as he does on the offbeat rhythms of The Police, the leitmotifs of Sergey Prokofiev, or the major and minor chords of Dolly Parton. “This Is Your Brain On Music” is music geekery at it's geekiest.
But it's that level of detail that provides at least some insight as to why people of certain ages have such strong memory connections to the music of the two bands performing this weekend at Les Schwab Amphitheater. The aforementioned Steve Miller Band will play its arsenal of classic-rock staples tonight, and cheeky Canadian alt-rockers Barenaked Ladies take the stage Saturday (see “If you go”).
Both bands inspire nostalgic reminiscing at the mere mention of their names. Bring up Steve Miller's bluesy, laid-back hits of the 1970s to people who were around back then, and you might hear “Dazed and Confused”-like tales of smokes and beers on the hood of a Ford Mustang, not to mention the breezy chorus of “Fly Like An Eagle” or “Jet Airliner” or “Rock'n Me.” Or that wolf whistle from “The Joker.”
Among people my age — Generation X and a bit younger — the name Barenaked Ladies conjures hours spent in dorm rooms, singing along with “If I Had $1000000” and trying to keep up with the silly, pop-culture-laden rap of “One Week.” You know the one: Aquaman, LeAnn Rimes, “The X-Files,” Sting and Snickers. “Like Kurosawa I make mad films. OK I don't make films. But if I did they'd have a samurai.”
Both bands evoke immediate and distinct reactions from people, not necessarily because of the way those songs are built — though a catchy melody or well-played guitar lick never hurt anyone — but because, as Levitin describes, our experiences and emotions are closely tied to the music that we hear.
That close tie can be found deep in the brain, where the hippocampus — a structure crucial to memory retrieval — sits right next to the amygdala, which Levitin describes as “the seat of emotions” in mammals. The amygdala is activated by an experience or memory with strong emotional components, and Levitin's studies show that music activates not only that part, but the nearby hippocampus as well.
Under a relatively new group of theories known as multiple-trace memory models, “each experience we have is preserved in high fidelity in our long-term memory system” and is waiting to be unlocked by groups of neurons configured in a particular way, according to Levitin. Think of those neurons as cues for your memories.
“A song playing comprises a very specific and vivid set of memory cues,” Levitin writes. And then: “The music that you have listened to at various times in your life is cross-coded with the events of those times. That is, the music is linked to events of the time, and those events are linked to the music.”
Which is why the sound of Modest Mouse's “The Moon & Antarctica” will always take me back to cruising in my 1991 Ford Taurus with my future wife. And it's why I can't hear Switchfoot's music without instantly being transported to our kitchen in Idaho, where it played for several days straight while we remodeled the room.
It's why someday, hearing John Coltrane's “Giant Steps” will remind me of the first few days at home with our daughter, who was born in April. I already know that the image of my wife holding our first child while “Naima” plays will stick with me forever. My brain is hanging on to that one.
Nostalgia for the music of our formative years is a common trait among humans. According to Levitin, children take a real interest in music around age 10 or 11, and by age 14, our musical brains are nearing “adultlike levels of completion.” By the end of our teenage years — when the brain shifts toward pruning unnecessary connections — most folks' taste in music has formed.
No one knows for sure why that happens — Levitin suggests it could be because people tend to be less open to new experiences as they get older — but it may explain why so many people seek out new tunes until their college years, and then seem stuck in that era for the rest of their lives. That's why this weekend's crowds at the Schwab will almost certainly be older, on average, than the one that showed up in May for Band of Horses, a relatively new band.
“As adults,” Levitin writes, “we tend to be nostalgic for ... the music that feels like it is ‘our' music.”
Depending on your circumstances, it's entirely possible that the Steve Miller Band or the Barenaked Ladies feels like “your” music. And that's OK. You may not know Lady Gaga from Lady Antebellum or Drake from The-Dream, but “your” music triggers your memories, and your memories trigger your emotions. And if those emotions are positive, you really can't beat a warm, summer evening on the Schwab's lawn, singing along to the soundtrack of your life.