Thursday, March 16, 2017

Swinging on a Slow Pendulum

by Giselle Renarde

Songs from your childhood make you feel young again.

I forget where I heard that. Probably on TV. But it makes me think of documentary I watched about music therapy. They interviewed a guy whose job was to visit long-term care facilities and lead singalongs with the residents, many of whom had dementia. This singalong guy figured he'd learn a bunch of songs from across the decades, but he found that when he played popular music from the 60s, 70s, 80s, the residents weren't interested, or they didn't remember the tunes.

It was only when he started singing songs from the 30s and 40s, when the elderly residents were young, that everyone joined in. From then on, it was all WWII era music all the time. Even residents whose dementia was very advanced remembered the old songs word for word.

I'm not exactly elderly, but lately I find I'm drawn back to the music of my youth. I didn't have the easiest childhood (in fact, I lived through a lot of what they're now calling Adverse Childhood Experiences), but I was lucky enough to find an escape hatch in the family record player.

When I was a preteen, I fell in love with Broadway musicals. Don't ask me how I got my introduction to musical theatre. My father was obsessed with Elvis. My mother never listened to music at all. My dad's record collection was vast, but it didn't include any Broadway. I used to go to the library and flip through the record stacks and check out every soundtrack I could get my hands on. I'd bring my records home and copy them onto cassette tapes so I could listen to them in my bedroom. I had a tape player of my own, but not my own turntable. Vinyl was on its way out. (Now it's on its way back in--funny, that.)

I think one of the things I most loved about musicals was that they were stories I could get lost inside. I would play my tapes over and over and over again. It's a wonder they didn't snap. I would listen until I'd memorized every lyric to every song. I could have sung the entire Phantom of the Opera soundtrack to anyone who was interested. (No one was.) And I recall a weirdly obsessive crush I had on some girl at my school because she looked (in my mind) like the actress who played Jenny in Aspects of Love.

After finding a bunch of my old tapes in my mother's basement a few months ago, I discovered something pretty amazing: all these years later, I still remember the lyrics to all those soundtracks. I haven't heard them in ages. Doesn't matter. The music's locked in my brain and the words are there with them.

I've read that as Carl Jung got older, he would go down to the river and carve tiny rivulets into the earth, leading the water off in different directions. This was a favourite childhood activity of his, and he came back to it in old age. 

More and more, I feel like life swings on a slow pendulum. I'm going back to the place I came from, and maybe I'll get there one day. There's a word I learned in university, a word I no longer remember--it means nostalgia for a past you never actually experienced. I've got a case of that, big time. My childhood was full of trauma, and yet there's something about it I want back. I'm not sure what. Maybe just the music.

Giselle Renarde is an award-winning queer Canadian writer. Nominated Toronto’s Best Author in NOW Magazine’s 2015 Readers’ Choice Awards, her fiction has appeared in well over 100 short story anthologies, including prestigious collections like Best Lesbian Romance, Best Women’s Erotica, and the Lambda Award-winning collection Take Me There, edited by Tristan Taormino. Giselle's juicy novels include Anonymous, Cherry, Seven Kisses, In Shadow, and The Other Side of Ruth.


  1. Music may be even more powerful than smell as an aid to memory. Kids learn the alphabet set to music (well, they used to, anyway. I think I did.) And the Preamble to the Constitution from Schoolhouse Rock. And the books of the Bible (or maybe I'm the only one left on earth who did that.) Pre-writing oral traditions tended to be transmitted in some form of poetry, and adding music to the existing rhythm made then even easier to memorize.

    Regarding the elderly and music, I was amazed when my very deaf 90-ish mother, who never could hear her great-granddaughter speaking, suddenly said, "Who's singing? Somebody's singing!" My brothers and I had been chatting away pretty loudly, while my three-year-old granddaughter was playing by herself and singing very softly. My mother could hear the singing when she couldn't hear the speech. I don't know that memory had anything to do with it, but the music certainly got through when other sounds couldn't, at least not easily.

    1. Music is processed in a different part of the brain than speech. For example, people who have aphasia (speech or language defects due to brain damage can still sometimes sing the lyrics to songs.)

  2. I couldn't help smiling, Giselle, at your notion of what constitutes old musicals. I grew up singing the tunes from musicals, too -- and still can. But they're from decades earlier than Phantom. My Fair Lady. Gypsy. South Pacific. Carousel... Not to mention Gilbert & Sullivan!

    1. Someone has suggested the word "Protonostalgia"

  3. I hadn't considered music an aid to memory, but it makes sense. I love the way the music that formed a soundtrack to a period in one's life, or a relationship, can bring back all the feelings of the time. (On the other hand, it's probably a bad idea to listen to "our song" while trying to heal from a breakup.)

  4. Momma X and I are always amazed when we hear a song from the 50's or 60's that we hadn't heard in perhaps fifty years, yet we still know all the words. Our youth is called the 'formative years' for a reason. Immersion. What we learn early sticks with us, for better or for worse.

  5. "My childhood was full of trauma, and yet there's something about it I want back. I'm not sure what. Maybe just the music."

    I've had a similar feeling recently. The answer I've been coming to is that I'm in search of things about who I was back then, personality traits that got lost or twisted along the way. Music could certainly be part of that.


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