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  • Writer's pictureRachel Swanick

#MakingMemories (with music)

It’s Sunday morning and I’m listening to the radio. The Selector - On the Radio starts with those familiar thumping chords and I’m transported back in time. I’m about 10 years old and my brother and I are dancing round the lounge, playing air keyboards. He is shouting, “It’s just the same old show” and I shout louder, “On my radio!”. Years later, at my wedding, the DJ plays this same song and my brother and I immediately start mooching round the dance floor in the same style.

Much has been written about how music affects our memory and senses, reminding us of moments of triumph and sadness in a heartbeat. I love Elbow’s song, Scattered Black and Whites, as a description of this phenomena. It’s dream weaving, picture painting lyrics take you back to your home and childhood. The lyric, “I shelter here some days” connects you with the idea that home is more than a physical place – it becomes something emotional that you can create in your mind.

Joanna had always been music obsessed. Her whole life was sound tracked and distinctly linked to musical memories. With sweeping changes of genre that reflected moments and people, Joanna had used music to build and furnish her emotional home. However, after two deep depressive episodes, Joanna had lost her musical connection. No more highs, or eyes filled with tears, no shivers or goosebumps. At first, Joanna had sought information on cognitive issues around loosing the feelings associated with music but, again, nothing connected.

When Joanna contacted me for a period of music therapy, we began talking about how psychological defenses can stop us connecting with things as feeling any emotion after mental ill health can be unsafe. Together, we wondered about Joanna’s current life and how, even though depression was present any more, it may be affecting her relationship to music. Joanna was starting a new career and was working many hours of energy zapping tasks. We were firmly in Covid19 pandemic time and with back to back lockdowns, Joanna had been unable to experience live music and all of the excitement that goes along with being at a gig or festival. Joanna was also more mature now and perhaps her need for music had changed, too. Staying creative as you go through adulthood becomes less natural and needs more conscious effort. Thinking about work, paying your bills, looking after family members or managing relationships takes more brain space than we give credit.

Over four sessions, Joanna and I talked, sang together as well as having ‘homework’ tasks to complete. I suggested ways Joanna could reconnect with music – revisiting old, favourite music, sound tracking her commute or daily walk, or maybe even following the “If you like this….” suggestions on virtual music players. All of this required effort – and Joanna was willing to give it a go. Towards the end of our sessions, Joanna said that there had been a change and she was feeling something when she listened to her music again. Sure, it might not have been an intense feeling like when she was younger, but through being together with someone trusted and exploring her relationship to music, Joanna was beginning to accept and find a space for new music in her life. Here is a poem that Joanna shared with me at the end of our work:

there is still a magic to my love for this, i remember,

hanging round in south-west London, wasting time,

listening, intense, to Synesthesia -

parts one, two and three, on repeat,

really and truly, i made experiences, atomised

but happy.

assonance visible, snare drum track tripping,

hissing, soft, in my ears; sunlit Putney,

Fulham, bathed and drenched in summer,

tinkling keyboard, piano sunk into synths,

alone with all the others.

And as with most therapy processes, it made me think about my own relationship to music. I’m a good bit older than Joanna and I have been through the reassessing process a few times. In fact, one of my cues for understanding when I am feeling stressed or upset is that silence envelopes me. Music helps me dream, imagine, feel. And I have to feel safe and content to do that. Being with Joanna made me think about my past selves and how and which music has sound tracked my life. Recently, I started to listen to Morrissey and The Smiths again (I was obsessed… but then politics or bad press or something….?!). It started with Alma Matters from Maladjusted. I couldn’t press repeat fast enough at the end of the song – that chorus! And then I found You are the Quarry - Come Back to Camden and, immediately, it was in 2004 in my mind. A young woman, traveling around, playing the violin and dreaming of what my future would be. I was shocked by the power of the memory and I started to cry as I thought about all of the happiness, change and sadness that had passed since that time. I had been feeling like I was ‘following protocol’ in my life rather than creative and free for a while and this song ignited that fire. The feeling lingered and I vowed to find those free parts of myself where hopefulness, creativity and imagination lived. Of course, back then it was the possibility of youth, but why could I not have some of that now?

A little while ago, a research student asked me, “What has your music done?”. After much deliberation, I replied with this:

It has moved and shook

Connected and rejected

Brought tears and guffaws

Made me look and made them heard

It has hated and it has loved

It has vibrated and it has silenced

It made them alive and made me live.

Special thanks to Joanna for sharing her journey with me.


The Selector – On my Radio

Elbow - Scattered Black and Whites

Jack Garrat – Synesthesia, Pt 1

Morrissey – Alma Matters

Morrissey – Come Back to Camden

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