My brain is severely limiting what music I can listen to. Is this normal?
June 12, 2009 10:25 AM   Subscribe

My brain is severely limiting what music I can listen to. Is this normal?

When I find new music that I enjoy, I often listen to it over and over within a short time span (say, 15-30 plays of one track in three days). I then get bored of the music, and move onto something new. Usually I'll come back later and listen to those tracks after a couple months and it will be familiar but enjoyable again.

Lately, as I go through my music library, I've found that there are many albums to which I can no longer listen. When I listen, they bring back vivid and often melancholy memories of when I heard them previously- after listening to a particular track, I'm flooded with the sensation of driving down a certain road near my home, with the smells of grass and summer air and the deodorant I had on, I can feel the clothes I was wearing and the wind on my face, and I feel similar to how I did that day- a mix of happiness and depression and anxiety. I'm not simply remembering what that time was like, but for a few moments it actually feels like I'm back in the situation I've remembered. It leaves me feeling a bit odd, like returning to your childhood school after being gone for several years. I don't particularly like the sensation. I end up avoiding them except in certain circumstances where I want to relive whatever feeling they brought about.

Most tracks I listen to have this effect unless they are new, giving me a vivid flashback of a different situation. I find that this can also happen with certain smells I experience and upon entering places I haven't been in for an extended length of time.

I talk to friends and they say they've never experienced this, except in a much duller manner (for example, a song reminds them of something but doesn't produce the same overwhelming sensation I'm describing).

Does this happen to you? Do you simply end up avoiding whatever draws such a response?

Apologies for the chatfilter-y nature of this question. This is something that's been bugging me for several months.

Much thanks!
posted by pyrom to Grab Bag (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I sometimes get the overwhelming feeling thing, usually it's not so negative. Usually more like nostalgia, but yeah, it's overwhelming sometimes.

Sounds like you need to find new music to associate with memories you're making now.

Oh, and I find that if I simply keep listening to the music that reminds me of times past, it quickly (within 3 to 5 plays of an album, for instance) loses those associations.

I mean, what'd you do when you were listening to this music? Did you kill someone?
posted by malapropist at 10:31 AM on June 12, 2009

Best answer: Some songs trigger very strong memories with me -- fortunately, these associations don't bother me, as I have a sort of stoic approach about my past -- not being able to undo what was done, etc. If I hadn't come to terms with some of the crap I did/went through years ago, some of these songs would be painful to listen to, yes. Now though, it's more of a feeling of wistfulness even though the evocation is quite strong. there are some songs that make me very happy because they trigger very happy memories. David Bowie's Let's Dance, Bob Marley's Coming in From the Cold. I could go on. They mean more to me than just the music because of the circumstances in which they place my thoughts.

Music occupies a mystical place in my worldview though, and it's super-important to me, spiritually. Lots of people just don't care about music at all, or not as much. I wonder what's wrong with them sometimes, but I don't care about sculpture hardly at all, and painting not as much as music. The written comes close to music, though. Probably because of the rhythm of words. I'm sure a sculptor would be aghast, so I just accept that this is my bag, and that's theirs.

If you feel strongly about music, it will trigger strong feelings. Don't avoid it -- channel it differently.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:43 AM on June 12, 2009

Synesthesia? It comes in many variations.
posted by Carol Anne at 10:46 AM on June 12, 2009

the written *word* comes close, that is.

I'm illiterate.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:46 AM on June 12, 2009

I can't listen to music I've listened to while I was on acid unless I'm....on acid. Otherwise, I don't start seeing anything, but I get that buzzy excited fluttery anxiety feeling and my head starts swimming and I shut the music off and shake my head clear.

Oh, Girl Talk and Bright Black Morning Light, I miss you.
posted by Juliet Banana at 10:50 AM on June 12, 2009

Yeah, I have this happen. I can listen to Duran Duran's "Tel Aviv" and I'm suddenly in the backseat of a car, reading Floating Dragon. Other tracks, different mood. I need not tell you what "Close to Me" triggers. The key is not to beat a track to death, so your associations are spread over a period of time. That means forgoing the sudden euphoria from bonding with a new tune.
posted by adipocere at 10:51 AM on June 12, 2009

I've just assumed this is how memory works for everyone. A scent or just a hook of a song will send me back to unrequested memories that are associated with it. I can remember the layout of the room I heard it in, and even sometimes get smells or a sense of how I used to think when I first heard it.

I've only ever found it to be negative and uncomfortable when the music brings up suppressed memories of past errors, or when I am already unhappy with the present in which case old familiar music can make me hopelessly wistful.
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:57 AM on June 12, 2009

(I also listen to an ever-increasing set of songs, and have had a constant stream of new music for the last decade. Just in case that is a useful data point...)
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:02 AM on June 12, 2009

I could have written this question. I have exactly the same listening habits, more or less, and the same weird emotional response. I get from music what a lot of people seem to get from smells, i.e., an intense emotional response that almost transports you back to the spot associated with the stimulus.
posted by milarepa at 11:03 AM on June 12, 2009

Yes, this happens to me, and yes, I've got a pretty restricted music library sometimes.
posted by kmennie at 11:08 AM on June 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I do this all the time. There are piles of songs that suck me back into a moment, a summer, a period in my life when I hear them, and the sensations (both physical, but in particular, emotional) are unbelievably intense and clear. Much of the time, scrolling through my iPod is like a weird little torture of "No, too sad, too nostalgic, too gleeful. All these gigs of songs and nothing I can live through hearing."

For some music, it's just such a fact of life that I've learned to listen to it anyway and just not let myself focus on the time warp feeling.

For a lot of other music though, my very favorite band in particular, I can only listen to it when I'm feeling very relaxed and stable and able to ride it out without being overwhelmed by the strong emotional memories.

The only upside is that, when I'm in the mood, I can come up with a playlist of songs that make me feel so intensely full of pleasurable feelings and vivid joyful memories its almost like being high. Otherwise, the only way I've found to deal with it is that I've identified a certain collection of songs so mindlessly perky and of long standing that I don't associate them with anything other than listening to them when nothing else will do. Stuff like "Brown Eyed Girl," "Tainted Love," and "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangster" seem to work for me.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:13 AM on June 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've done this on purpose. I used to get new music right before going on a vacation, and then listen to it the whole trip. Later, I could listen to the tunes again while looking at pictures of the vacation, and it was almost like being there again.

On the other hand, I am hesitant to revisit the music I was listening to while my mother was dying of cancer.
posted by Mountain Goatse at 11:39 AM on June 12, 2009

Best answer: This used to happen to me a lot too. I found that I needed to "reclaim" my music. For example...the first Pearl Jam album has a specific, particular association for me, tied to a pivotal life turning point. I couldn't listen to it without thinking of that time/experience. It drove me nuts, especially since the album is so ubiquitous. I just decided one day to use a sort of "systematic desensitization" method to remap my associations with it. I first started listening to the album occasionally while I was doing something else...playing a game on the computer, reading a book, etc. I got used to the album and it didn't have the crazy emotions tied to it so much. Then I put the album on my iPod and listened to it a few times while on a roadtrip...something that is definitely memorable.

Now when I hear that Pearl Jam album I think of that roadtrip and all the stuff that happened then, the feeling of that period in my life when I re-listened to Pearl Jam over and over, and oh, that other thing.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:42 AM on June 12, 2009

I do this too. Feeling the x of being in y location at z time when I listened to that song.

I also have a tendency to blur songs in my head, such that when I get used to having a song on a particular album, if I listen to it out of context I keep expecting the song that usually follows it to come on.

These things are distracting to me, but I keep trying because music is cathartic for me.
posted by Night_owl at 11:44 AM on June 12, 2009

This absolutely happens to me, and it can certainly trigger heavy emotions and memories, but even more fascinating (to me), is that it can even trigger physical effects on the body. Specifically, if I listen to Jarboe, I often begin to feel very hungry. I think this has to do with listening to one of their albums too many times before lunch. It’s unfortunate because it’s a great album but when I listen to it I get an almost painful hunger feeling in my gut!

A great movie that illustrates this is one I’d hope you’ve seen: A Clockwork Orange. Definitely check it out if you haven’t already.

As far as preventing this from happening…don’t listen to the same song over and over while experiencing any kind strong emotion that you don’t want related to that song. Easier said than done, I know :)
posted by whtthehecker at 11:48 AM on June 12, 2009

what an interesting question - I have had this happen as well and I agree with Devils Rancher that this is probably more of a spiritual matter. When it has happened to me, I see it as a sign that it is "time to move on" musically speaking. That's when I start to explore entire new genres of music. Usually, by the time I've mined a type of music, the emotional potency of certain songs such, as you speak, are diluted.
I say... start branching out... maybe to even more "non-melodic" genres such as jazz or new age etc.
posted by mrmarley at 12:04 PM on June 12, 2009

As a composer, this happens even with individual melodies and chords. I have always found myself writing something and vividly recalling, say, a particular road sign which I was looking at when I first heard bits of in another song, or doing a mental fly-through of a particular intersection in my town while trying to write a hopeful chord progression. The associations are almost never related in content, only in incidental timestamp.

It occurred to me a few years ago that this is how I recall ALL things auditory -- if I think about what I was looking at last week, I can remember the conversation I was having at the time and write it down, but if I forget what I was doing last week, the words are lost forever. My wife LOVES when we're in a heated argument and I bring up something she said, and she yells "WHEN DID I SAY THAT?!?" and I respond "JUST AS WE PASSED THE FUCKING WENDY'S ON PROSPECT. THERE WAS A BLUE PICKUP AT YOUR TEN, AND YOU HAD ON THOSE SILVER EARRINGS WITH THE JANGLIES" and she kind of stares at me blankly and stomps out of the room.

I'm sorry to hear that this kind of thing makes you uncomfortable. It seems utterly normal to me, and might actually be how human memory works on a basic level ("snapshots" of entire scenes including sound). I wish I were smart enough to do serious research on this.
posted by jake at 12:35 PM on June 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

This happens to me all the time, although most of the time the feelings/memories it takes me to are neutral-to-positive. If a song conjures up a particularly disturbing memory, delete it from your playlist. One thing I've found over the years is that there is plenty of great music out there to take its place, and there are plenty of great future memories to associate with said new music.
posted by not_on_display at 12:59 PM on June 12, 2009

Best answer: Try this: listen to the music while breaking it down. I used to be a "slow" listener. Often I'd listen to an album for the first time, and I'd be indifferent to it, or even somewhat hostile. Then with repeated listening it would grow on me, and even become my favorite album for a time. I eventually broke down the process. I start listening without prejudice, just let the total effect hit me. Then, as I grow familiar with it's overall "big" structure, I'll analyze it on subsequent hearings, trying to isolate what it is that makes a given piece work, and with repeated exposure, I'll latch onto various elements (say, just really listening to what the percussion is doing etc.). Eventually, it all comes back together and I enjoy it in its totality. And I found that some albums I can listen to basically forever, and always discover some nuance.

My advice would be to approach the music a bit more analytically - when I started doing that, I noticed that my associations with a given piece and external circumstances would weaken and often vanish altogether. As a bonus, my appreciation of music has grown tremendously.

Try it. I think it might work for you - if you want to lessen or eliminate these extraneous associations.
posted by VikingSword at 2:36 PM on June 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think it's perfectly normal if you are the kind of person who has an intense relationship with music. There is some music that operates as my own personal time machine - the song starts and it is 1998 all over again.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:06 PM on June 12, 2009

Best answer: I'm the exact same way. Any given week I'll have a handful of songs I've developed an idiosyncratic interest in, will listen to them over and over again... and by the next week, I've gotten sick of them. I do the same thing with video clips. My iPod has hundreds of tracks and videos, and on Shuffle I'll skip maybe 90% of them for being "stale". You might want to check out a service like Pandora to give you a steady diet of new music tailored to your tastes.

I do the memory association thing, too, but not for every song. Because of the way I listen to music, a lot of tracks are tied to certain periods of my life, and songs that I listened to a lot during glum periods are definitely hard to get into again.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:30 PM on June 12, 2009

On non-preview: seconding VikingSword's suggestion of "breaking it down". As part of my "digestion" of a given song, I'll do stuff like search for cover versions on YouTube, do center-pan removal via Audacity to get a karaoke effect, and even listen to it sped up to highlight long-form patterns that might have been hard to notice at normal speed. It helps extend the "life" of a good song, but also "exhausts" it a lot more completely.

(sorry for all the "quotations")
posted by Rhaomi at 4:34 PM on June 12, 2009

For YEARS I couldn't listen to the Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda" because when I was 5 or 6 my little brother passed out and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. I remember nothing about the actual experience, but even now the song is linked to that scary feeling.

I dated a girl in high school who lived about 20 minutes away, and for almost the entire summer I was dating her I had a certain cassette in my car stereo (it was Pocketful Of Kryptonite, by Spin Doctors, OK?) and for YEARS those songs brought back memories of that car, that summer, and that girl (especially the deeper cuts off the album).

It fades with distance, though. The associations are still there, but they are merely a slight echo now, rather than an overpowering sensation. I haven't tried desensitization, nor have I listened to those songs very often, but that feeling just kind of gradually goes away.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:55 PM on June 12, 2009

To stop myself getting sick of certain artists and songs, I force myself to listen to whole albums at a time rather than one song on repeat. It really works!
posted by ashaw at 1:05 AM on June 13, 2009

I'm glad you posted this- I always thought I had unnaturally stong emotional responses to songs. In fact, I had followed the suggestion of bringing along some favorite music to the hospital when I went into labor (on the thought that your favorite music will relax you, or at least distract you from the pain); but in the end, I didn't dare play it because I was afraid it would thereafter ruin my favorite songs because I would feel the labor pain and stress every time I listened to it!
posted by Eicats at 2:19 PM on July 1, 2009

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