Music tagging — or, voluntary involuntary auditory memories

No, not that kind of music tagging, the kind where you add tags/labels to your mp3 collection. What I want to discuss is a phenomenon that I’ve tried to be conscious about for quite some time: the act of deliberately forming strong associations between certain pieces of music and a particular place. You’re all familiar with what is known as olfactory memory, smells that suddenly take you on a journey down memory lane – in particular childhood/adolescent memories of certain perfumes and foods. The same holds for certain tastes, as described in the now famous Madeleine cake episode in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:

No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place

The same also holds for music, be it particular sounds or particular sound tracks. These phenomena are sometimes referred to as involuntary memories. What I’ve been doing on occasion is to try to make these voluntary.

The phenomenon first occured to me when I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary as a child. This must have been back in 1991-92, because every time I picked up the book, I would listen to Metallica’s then recent Black album (you know, the last good one before it all went downhill). After having finished the novel, I noticed that every time I listened to that particular album (in particular, the “Sad but true” song, for some reason), I would be instantly transported to that path leading to the pet cemetary (misspelled Sematary) — or to the gruesome scene of Zelda.

Interlude: In writing this I went to search for the Zelda scene and found it on Youtube. I don’t know why, but it still sends shivers down my spine and I just very reluctantly finished watching it. Incidentally, Zelda is played by a man, which just makes it even creepier. I still think this is one of the most haunting horror characters invented. Please watch at your own discretion.

Anyway, after having experienced the tagging of Metallica’s Black album onto the Pet Sematary novel, I got curious. Could this phenomenon of involuntary memory be made voluntary? And of course it can. Since then, I’ve tried to consistently listen to one particular album whenever I travel to somewhere new. Last week I went to Copenhagen, and I consistently listened to Klaus Schulze’s Mirage album (a true masterpiece) every day when I walked from my hotel to the conference venue. The result: Now, whenever I listen to Klaus Schulze, memories from Copenhagen will come up. To be fair, it doesn’t really bring up explicit memories, but it brings up this undescribable je ne se qua feeling of there-ness (wow, sorry about the collapse into obscurism there). This has become my way of taking photos; my own harmless means of tagging a city. Sadly the snapshot cannot be conveyed, but in some sense, that just adds to the value of it.

I would really like to come up with a name for this phenomenon. I guess the most precise would be ‘voluntary involuntary auditory memory’, but I think I’ll just refer to it as ‘music tagging’ for now. ‘Music tagging’ nicely catches the way in which a city can become tagged by music (although invisible to others), but also that the music itself becomes tagged (labelled) according to its associations. Recommendations for other neologisms (or, indeed, already existing terms) are very much welcome. Until then, happy music tagging.

2 thoughts on “Music tagging — or, voluntary involuntary auditory memories”

  1. Nice post! I can really recognise your Pet Cemetary-Black Album double association…

    I have a similar association. While being sick and home from school in 1994, I become totally absorbed in Ian M. Banks “Feersum Endjinn” while listening to Portishead’s “Dummy” album on repeat. Whenever I hear a song from the album, I recollect scenes and atmospheres from the book (and vice versa, when I occassionally dip into the book again).

    Actually I think both the album and the book both became (even) better by this association.

    I think the fact that I was so absorbed was crucial for the strength of the association that was forged though. So, in case such absorbtion is difficult to call on at will (I think it is), “music tagging” might be difficult to acheive. But maybe there are individual differences here though, since you seem to have succeeded.

    Maybe I will try it out too…

  2. Thanks for the comment, Olle. I think you’re right that the strength of association is very dependent on how absorbed you are, but I think this can be remedied to some degree, either by going to a new place where your first visual impressions are immediately set to a particular soundtrack (preferably one with as few associations as possible before), or if you constantly listen to exactly the same piece of music with very specific experiences. For instance, I haven’t been to Copenhagen for a long time, which meant that I was succesful in tagging that with Schulze (which was also something I hadn’t listen much to beforehand), and I constantly put on one particular song (“Echelon”, by 30 Seconds to Mars) whenever I would walk across the market in front of my building, which has worked pretty well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *