That ’70s Song

Road Trip! My wife, Judy, and I just got back from a driving marathon – New Jersey to Charlottesville, Virginia and back in two days. Six hours each way, and regardless of how much caffeine, taurine, or yerba extract you ingest, keeping your eyes open behind the wheel is still a challenge. Luckily, our rental car had satellite radio with over a hundred stations, including channel 7 with non-stop ’70s music. I just celebrated my 52nd birthday (Billy Joel’s “52nd Street” came out in ’78), which means the ’70s were my formative years – end of elementary school, high school, and a couple of years of college. That was a decade when much of my time was spent listening to music, and to my amazement I had nearly perfect recollection of virtually every song the DJ played.

It is a wonder, Judy and I kept noting, that the brain has all that stuff locked up inside it. Here we are, over 30 years later, and each note, each word, is right there to be recalled, effortlessly. If you would have asked me to catalog the information that I have stored in my cranium, I probably would not even have consciously considered all those ’70s songs, and yet there they were, waiting patiently for the right trigger to call them instantly out of hibernation. Granted, the number of neural connections required to store Soul City’s three-word Do The Hustle (’75) – which just barely beats out Donna Summer’s five-word Love to Love You Baby (’75) for its laconic inanity – can’t be that great. But a substantial rewiring of the gray matter is certainly needed for Tee Set’s Ma Belle Amie (’70) or Queen’s Teo Toriatte (’76), which have to be “written to disk” phonetically since I speak neither French nor Japanese! I can understand how some lyrics could have been imprinted by endless repetition, given that I spent so many of my waking hours in those days listening to Queen, but how many times in my life could I possibly have heard David Geddes’ Run Joey Run (’75) that it should remain at the tip of my tongue so many years later?

The special relationship our brains have with music was explored in depth by Daniel Levitin in This is Your Brain on Music, and by Oliver Sacks who tells incredible stories of just how intimate and often fragile that relationship is in Musicophilia. A recent NY Times piece, Why Music Makes our Brain Singdetails experiments to uncover the specific pleasure centers that music excites, and the neurotransmitters released when one experiences “peak emotional moments” in listening. Physiology or chemistry may provide the underlying fundamental explanations, but the music-brain connection is obvious and apparent to everyone. Between songs, Judy and I lamented the fact that our educational system seems not to take advantage of this connection and doesn’t tap into the clear affinity we have for memorizing music. Wouldn’t it be great if our children learned everything as song, the way they learn nursery rhymes? The amount of information they could store using that methodology is endless. To paraphrase Paul Simon’s Kodachrome (’73), if you took all the songs I knew when I was single and put them all together – what would that add up to? The entire Bible? The complete works of Shakespeare? The six volumes of the Mishna? I once read that each mishna originally had its own specific tune, and in a culture where knowledge was transmitted orally, memorizing them would have been simple and natural. Echoes of that tradition can still be heard in the sing song melody of yeshiva study.

I have experimented over the years trying to imprint some mnemonics on my children’s brains, including telling them bedtime stories about the famous Princess SoCahToa and her adventures with trigonometry. But nothing can match the combination of words set to music in terms of creating long-term memories with large amounts of information. Those of us who used to spend Sundays roller-skating can’t listen to Tony Orlando’s Knock Three Times (’70) without stamping our feet to “twice on the pipes.” Similarly, anyone who went to Hebrew day school, even if he has completely lost touch with religious ritual, remembers Birkat Hamazon, 30, 40, 50 years later, down to banging on the table at the words v’al shulchan zeh.

So, educators and parents, Teach Your Children Well (’70) and let’s make use of the uncanny potential our brains have for storing musical information. As the late Karen Carpenter put it (’73) “Sing, sing a song, make it simple to last your whole life long.”

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