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Music and Memory

February 2017

I was recently reading Oliver Sacks' book on music and memory, Musicophilia. A neurologist writing about music might seem like a way to ruin how music can move us emotionally. But, like all of Sacks' books that I have read, it illuminates the topic in new ways.

He is most interested in how memory and music mix. How does music, perhaps more than other things, bring back memories, sometime very old ones, associated with that music? There may not even be any obvious connection between the music and the memory. Music can lift us out of depression, and drag us further into it. The memories may be sad; the music may be sad or not.

Sacks tells us that music occupies more areas of our brain than language does. That gets my attention as a writer. We are a musical species. Oliver Sacks was called by The New York Times "the poet laureate of medicine." and in Musicophilia he looks at some “musical misalignments.” These range from children who are musical from birth, a man who suddenly finds musical ability after being hit by lightning, those with “amusia” to whom music only sounds like noise, a man who has a memory that spans only seven seconds for everything but music, and people whose memories have been rearranged by Alzheimer's Disease.

There is no shortage of poems about music, but that is not this month's writing prompt. This month, we are focusing on music that triggers memories. Take a look at a few music poems, like "Music at My Mother's Funeral" by Faith Shearin, and you can see poetry about music that doesn't quite cross into memory.

In one of Percy Bysshe Shelley's short poems, he touches on the idea of this prompt:
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

But our simple model poem of music and memory for this month is section 1 of Lucille Clifton's 7-part poem "far memory" which she titles "convent."

my knees recall the pockets
worn into the stone floor,
my hands, tracing against the wall
their original name, remember
the cold brush of brick, and the smell
of the brick powdery and wet
and the light finding its way in
through the high bars.

and also the sisters singing
at matins, their sweet music
the voice of the universe at peace
and the candles their light the light
at the beginning of creation
and the wonderful simplicity of prayer
smooth along the wooden beads
and certainly attended.

In this poem, I make the connection to "matins," which is a service of morning prayer in various churches, but is also the morning song of birds.

For this prompt, you hear something in the music. The music recalls a memory. Maybe you're playing the instrument, or singing, or listening to others sing or play, live or on a recording. Maybe the music is another kind - ocean waves or sounds from nature that play on the ear like music. Perhaps, you hear something that you never heard before; something no one has heard before.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


It isn't a cantata
to anyone but me:
The wailing of a train
combined with nature's poetry.
A burst of bass is followed
by roiling beads of hail.
That crystal chime contrasted by
the rustling of a quail.
A rasp of wind nearby
comes whistling down the lane
providing for my senses a
remarkable refrain.
In layer upon layer
melodious and mild
I find the steadfast
train combining
quartets with the wild.



Unheard music in the heart
Measures distance from the soul.
You see me as one, but I am part
Character choosing a role.

The freedom in my fingers
Says practice plays surprise.
When trying to hear, the mind lingers
While truth's major chords dies.

Edward N. Halperin


I’m driving my dog to obedience class,
crossing the bridge over the American River
running softly now in summer.
Unbidden, the song starts in my head. Peace
I ask of thee, O river. Campfire
song from summer camp half a century ago,
flames lulling toward sleep in kapok bags.
I’d imagine the big-bear lake lapping
its shores in the dark, imagined myself
an Indian gathering courage for life
from the rim of mountains.
Myself now, gathering courage to cross this
bridge, drive my unruly dog on a switch-
back grade, up-mountain. To lead
him in his lessons not far from the meadow
where a chief of the Hill Nisenan led his
people in peace, while the forty-niner Gold
Rush raged all around them, wild
as the unbridged river Natoman, the one
I’m crossing now.

Taylor Graham


I must have been eight or so when that song came out.
It has no outwardly obscene lyrics
but it does have certain sexual overtones.
And I can't imagine, now, at sixty,
that I could have understood them as an eight-year-old.
I had the forty-five, of course, and I couldn't
wait to get home from school each day to play it.
It felt (MONY MONY) so (MONY MONY)
good (MONY MONY), so good
just listening to it over and over like that.
Yeah (Yeah) Yeah (Yeah). But I can't
help wondering what I was thinking
with my headphones on and my eyes closed,
dancing around upstairs in my bedroom
with my mother down in the kitchen rinsing
and chopping dinner. I'm sure I knew what 'moaning' was
already at the tender age of eight. But did I
see in my mind's eye--did I hear in my mind's ear--
all the orgasmic women of tomorrow
singing their sweet vowels in the background
like so many Shondells? Tommy James
said in an interview: "I was looking
for something catchy, like Sloopy, or Bony
Maroney. But everything sounded so stupid.
So Ritchie Cordell and I were writing it
in New York City when I went out for a smoke
on the balcony. All of a sudden I looked up
and there was the Mutual Of New York building
with its initials in red neon at the top.
I said, that's it! Ritchie, come here, you gotta
see this. I mean, it was like God himself
said: Tommy, here's the title. I've always
thought that if I had looked the other way
it might have been called HOTEL TAFT."

Paul Hostovsky


brings back fond
childhood memories
of the Himalayas,

and the surefooted
little donkeys
that carried me
down and up,

and up and down
the steep mountains
of India, Pakistan
and Kashmir.

Those little donkeys
never stumbled once,
and these memories
have never faulted.

Bobbie Townsend


For years, when I heard this music
I'd pause to absorb its complexity
and complex cadences.
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Rachmaninoff. Beautiful!

One day, on a visit home,
Mother ironing in the kitchen,
it came on the radio.
She paused mid collar, saying
I heard him play this.

Who? I said, not quite understanding.
You know, Rachmaninoff.
Hang on a minute!
You heard Rachmaninoff play
this piece of music. When? Where?

Oh I don't know, she said,
before we got married.
Your father didn't come. He had a cold.
He didn't like me going by myself
but I didn't see why I should miss it.

I still marvel at the thought of her
listening there, on her own,
forever glad it happened
before their marriage,
before she contracted to obey.

Jocelyn Dacie


Not exactly harp or violin or piano
but I find a beauty in their ringing
Both joyous and solemn
Calling, beckoning
high or low
they warrant your attention

The sound of church bells
be they for time, mass or event
makes me feel less alone
knowing that others somewhere
hear it as well
separate yet together

Their sound recalls
Bright, sunshine filled days
Some warm, some cold
I see the storefront Pentecostal church across the street
where the young and old turned up and turned out
Men in suits and women in hats and dresses
talking and laughing
Children running and playing outside

Who were they? What were their names?
And what went on inside?
this store turned house of God
I wondered as I watched
from my grandma’s front parlor window
We were not ourselves churchgoers
but we were keen observers

As kids, my sister and I had come across a bell
buried somewhere in the deep drawers
of a built- in kitchen closet
coated thick with years of paint flat and dull
A trove of miscellany
Sewing kits, playing cards, buttons, rhinestones,
spices, utensils, coasters, pencils, antacids, coins
and the orange flavored aspirin gum Grandma let us have
just because we liked the taste
and grandma wasn’t good at saying no

We had a great time playing with the bell
and used it to call grandpa to the dinner table
promptly at 4 pm - which is the time we normally ate
although I’ve been told over the years
that there was nothing normal about a 4 o’clock dinner
though grandma actually called it supper
but that didn’t seem to make it any less odd
or we kids any less hungry again by the time it was seven

The bell was the only musical instrument we had in the house
unless you counted the little horns we blew on New Year’s eve
or the wax harmonicas we chewed on Halloween
Though she claimed to like music, the bell was soon confiscated
by my mother, who unlike her mother,
did not possess much tolerance for childish antics

We grew older, time passed and people passed on with it
And with death, came wakes and funerals
and the ringing of bells
sorrowful and haunting in their simplicity
One might say - not the prettiest boys at the dance
but striking in their own way

The tolling of the big church bell
as the body leaves the church
Unsettling, and strangely urgent
the end of the service, the end of a mortal life
a soul being called elsewhere
The bells announcing its departure
demanding they be heard
That one take notice
If not now- when?

I wonder at these times
who will be at my service, what words will be spoken
or unspoken
and by whom

As I leave the church, the bells reverberate in my head
and these thoughts, punctuated by each toll
weary my steps even more
as I watch the casket of a young friend
placed back into the hearse

I carefully navigate my way back to the car
With weeping eyes, I tiptoe across the sodden lawns,
cursing the heels I’m wearing
and the cruelties of the world

My nostrils still filled with incense
my ears and brain can still hear the bells
I’m home and I remove my clothes
damp with rain, heavy with mourning
I will not wear them again until they are cleaned
cleansed of death

At my dry cleaners, there is a bell
one of those old movie hotel check-in desk types
I like its high pitched sound and lingering echo
I like it better than clearing my throat
or tapping my fingernails on the counter
or the modern buzzer activating sensor mat
The bell, itself ancient and enduring,
announces that I’m here,
I’m here

Terri J. Guttilla


for the faith
I thought I
had lost, out
around the south
end of the cove,
I pick my
way through the
sand dollars under
the moon to avoid
breaking them.
Here, where the
waters come to
relax, a starfish,
slender and blue,
raises an arm
in my pool of light,
as if to whisper,
Shhhhh-- and --that
thing is too bright.
the oldest sound -
a rhythmic tolling, thundering throb -
like a promise after
the church bells ring
on a Sunday night.
Come. Sit down.
We are never alone.

Cynthia Grady

For Alicia

She sits in silence, then extends her hands:
the notes in sudden throbs run down
the scale as fingers coax the sound
to spread in bursts across the empty room.

The opening bars, sent dazzlingly aloft,
rout the midday dreams of pigeons high
above, fill the room with synthetic light,
and send the minor demons to their dens.

Passing on the street, a man abruptly stops,
almost drops his phone, and turns his head
to listen, stymied in his rush, turned to stone
by sound that washes him like Niobe’s tears.

For a moment the city’s onerous clamor
is muted by these pelagic waves that crash
in beats upon its metallic shore, time stops,
and down the paths of years I come to you.

Robert Miller

(We Miss You, B.B. King)

Preach your way across the song,
Emotions, through music , acted on,
From tremolo to hypnotic dance,
Melancholy, moaning chant,
Feverishness without frenzy,
No jittery apology,
Love and loss intoned,
Hard hearted man or woman bemoaned,
Cheating man or woman disowned.

An army of scales and chords,
Bearing dissonant musical scores,
Playing the devils note, commanding legion,
Singing off the beat, syncopated strum,
A high-pitched piercing on the air,
Confront right or wrong on a dare,
Face up to the choice and tell,
Angels or demons, heaven or hell,
For having faced either allure
What else is there to fear?

Hear a heart sing, not rotten,
Only torn with grief and forgotten,
Feel the weight and vigor of this genre so aural,
Hear what's reflected in the sonic mural,
Elation, salaciousness, sensuality,
The mortal coil's gravity,
Call and response felt deep in skin and soul,
A beat strong and true, never growing cold,
The removal of scar inflicting yokes.

Warbling music of the gods
Rebellious enough to be outlawed
The good, the bad, take up either sword
Yet with other forms of song, blues is not at war
Merely disparate, or contrasting as such
Not the antithesis of other music much
A far cry from some, distant cousin of many
Distinctive and deviant, comparisons are plenty
But to find music incomparable to blues, you won’t find any.

Warm whiskey bellies on country lanes
Replaced by ice and snow in freezing veins
Some buoyancy as driven theater beats of Rock
Like heavy metal without angst or shock
No upbeat pop, optimistic with cheer
Just the human condition’s atmosphere
Not Folk’s eternal idealistic optimism
But its prism of fair minded liberalism
Its search for freedom matches heart
These descriptions explain, in part
The Blues enduring positivity
And Riley’s eternal legacy.

Linda Imbler


Feel the way your heart beats
clanging against stacked ribs
a laugh that opens the mouth

Herb Alpert
whipped cream
& other delights

The music-brass and bold
my father: a man with one record album
and a stack of outdated encyclopedias

It’s music I still love
and a father who still stumbles

All our lives searching for rhythm

Patty Joslyn


A most brilliant Laureate once wrote
poems begin as a lump in the throat.
Well, for me something most
overwhelming began
as a knot in the fingers – or
to be more precise, the fingering –
but let me begin at the beginning:
I cannot sight-read [my regret
remains ever-lingering] although
I can decipher and memorize
thank heavens – for as another
great brain immortalized:
Life without music would be
a mistake.

So. This is the gist:
For days I would reach a spot
in my pitiful rendition
of Bach’s first Invention
played – as always, from memory –
and two knuckles would refuse
and my fingers turned to nematodes
and it was awful. I could go no further.
Perhaps a week went by, and try as
I might, I couldn’t get it right.

You wont believe this – I’m not
sure I do – but Johann himself
tapped lightly on my shoulder
and with a smile in his voice said
[I translate from the German]
try the score, bright eyes!
Rummaging took over from there -
where, in my small world
was the sheet music?

I never found the version
I had scribbled my fingering on
[as the standard is often
beyond my reach] but another
pristine copy did turn up,
one I didn't even remember I had,
and I did what the old man said:
painstakingly searched for
the section that was my stump.

I can hardly explain –
it seems so strange –
I had been trying to play
the wrong notes! That is why
my fingers rebelled!
Nope. Couldn’t break the lock
until Bach himself
came by and called me a jerk.
[The actual term was dummkopf]
But that’s how I got it to work.

Hooray…. but I find myself now
wondering: if I louse up the Chopin
will Fred show his almighty beak
and say rotten things to me
in Polish?

Timea Deinhardt


I am standing in my kitchen
Like a thousand other mornings
Of a lifetime of mornings
In silence.
Deafening silence.

Every morning of my life
Every year of my life
For decades of my life
Was a soundtrack

Brahms and Bach
And Bela Bartok.
And Ludwig.

Schubert and Schumann
And Shostakovich.
And Wolfgang

They played for me.
Butchering and mastering.
Neither mattered.
Both were grand.
And all was beauty.

Every forgotten sharp
And shaved note
And curse under the breath of frustration
And tears
Were background noise I forgot to take in.
Hours a day
Of an ordinary, extraordinary soundtrack.
And I missed it.

And I miss it.

The music.

Louder than it ever was
Is the silence
And the longing
And the ache
In the wake.

Chopin doesn’t live here anymore.

Laurie Sitterding


One Saturday night last winter
I was listening to the quiet flurry
of a snow shower. The murmur of
white crystals melting into the walkway,
just before the storm. Ah, the
distinct smell of wet cement still lingers.

Later, the crunching sound of our
footsteps trudging up the frozen
path searching for the family
hound, howling at the moon, howling
at the neighbor, all of us howling at
the full moon like a bunch of lunatics.

I could hear some old tunes seeping
through the walls of my neighbor's
place. Brought back a lot of good
memories. Unchained Melody, one of
my favorites, but it's getting cold out here.
Time to go sit by our imaginary fireplace.

Marie A. Mennuto-Rovello


My heart related
to the song saying I love you
a melody I'd labelled
true love got away
brings me tears
my eyes wetting
pouring into the laughs
don't hurt me now
not now lover, cheater
stop my hurt radio
I'm caught in abusive
longing of safety home
your arms provided
stop it, angelic
"my life empty without,
with your harbouring"
I beg Radio, almost
I can't stand numb
rocking back, forth
screaming my void
desperation I wore
dark cycles on eyes
intro to that agony
it switched, radio
Lover wronged
Turn off, turn it
My heart clearing, never
for better though
Radio, I'm indebted...

Sia Morweng


There has to be a thread somewhere
that sews the fabric into one.
How else can each of us still wear

and fiery concert-banners share ?
From linen, wool, or cotton spun
There has to be a thread somewhere

to save the cloth from wear and tear -
and the patterns finely done !
How else can we old ones still wear

the mantles we had thought so fair,
that fluttered through our dance in fun ?
There has to be a thread somewhere -

its strings still weaving through the air
while catching color from the sun.
How else can everyone still wear

The codes of music in their hair
and rhythmic garlands dearly won ?
What else can everyone still wear ?
There has to be a thread somewhere.

Catherine M. LeGault


The house is empty.
No one lives here anymore.
Candles around the bathtub
wait for some suicidal flower,
maybe a girl named Lily,
her petal-palms padding pink water.
An ache of longing lingers, hovers
near the ceiling like a closet shadow.
Look at you.  Poetry sliding from your mouth
as naturally as lips glossed with a wet tongue.
How do you do that?  The lost memory
of an R. E. M. song plays in the hallway at the top of the stairs,
unaware it's a razored memory, and not allowed there.
The stereo is quiet,
fingers to its AC/DC teeth
like a square brown mother shushing a child.
But go now.  There's nothing to see here.
All that was is hidden in the paintings nailed along cracked walls,
invisible to the naked.  There's nothing to see.  Go,
but first tell me how you do that,




'tis not that easy a thing i swear,
to sit here, night after night
playing for you.
your indifference, half hidden
through the cigarette smoke
curling there round your face,
like the icy fingers of jealous rage
clawing at my stomach.
jealous,me? yes, that i seem unable to please you,
nor feed your eternal hunger.
still your desire seems nothing more than passing fancy,
to tease me
so is more than a lover should bear.
as i press calloused fingertip
to a fret
you care not that the note rings true
nor that melody moves me.
yet i am born to this and
you are master, i the servant.
even now as i softly stroke your neck,
my hand on your body,
i can sense the change, the strain of the wire,
that becomes
the tension in your voice.
As i hold you close to me.
it will be another long night.

Ray Cutshaw


I hear you in all the songs today.
Each lyric written for you or me,
for us, by you or me, by us.
The music you gave me, of course,
but now you have worked your way
into my own music, the songs on the radio,
a tune I can't get out of my head.

I find myself humming you in the shower,
my hand pulling up to my belly,
over and round and up my neck,
resting on my cheek.
I try standing long under the warm
hoping to wash it away.

The song comes to me from outside
through an open window as I make
my small supper alone and I close the window
so as not to have to share what little food
I have with a ghost.

Pamela Milne


The young man
Played his violin
In the courtyard below.
There was longing and laughter,
Gondolas on moonlit waters,
Red hibiscus in hair,
Long skirts in sunshine,
Chocolate and coffee
All in his melody.

I listened.
My eyes misting over
A smile on my lips
As my gnarled fingers

Tried to close
The buttons on my waistcoat.
Oh Rosalind!
Of the round hips
and sweet lips,
The Nectar of Life.

I knelt my head
Against the window pane
The lace curtains
Caressed my face
And I thought of her
As the sweet strings
Played my life
over and over again.

 Abha Iyengar


Now that we have played it through,
the final line of this movement,
chorded into a memory,
six tones for a moment are one.

Fermata, a blessed rest.

Sustaining the silence beyond
what we might once have done.
We take in breath, close eyes.
Absence is itself a sound.

Fermare, memory stops.

Tonight's sleep is drugged and dreamless,
and tomorrow I will awake to nothing
but a blank sheet of writing paper,
its beautiful emptiness taking me into

feria, a day of rest.

Ken Ronkowitz


Hear the music of the voices speaking different tongues.
The crowded E-train from Queens disgorges its passengers at its first Manhattan stop.
The Spanish from Mexico, Columbia, and Puerto Rico, the German, Russian, Polish,
English and occasional Greek that had been quietly spoken has become silent
The crowds stream onto the platform to the sound of music:beating African drums,
Forties dance music played by a trombone backed by a tape,
and a baritone accompanying his aria with an electric piano.
In the music I hear the rubbing of shoulders, the joining of purpose.
I hear too a memory of many delicious dinners eaten in the Queens from which I have come.

Ellen Kaplan