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Music and memory… and adverts

June 28, 2012

The case of Clive Wearing has always fascinated me.  Wearing contracted a brain infection in 1985 and was left with a 7-30 second memory, but if that wasn’t mind-boggling enough, it turns out that Wearing has retained much of his musical memory and ability.  So while he has no memory of being able to play the piano or read music, he can sit at a piano and play by memory or by sight.  Not surprisingly Wearing’s case has provided the basis for much research into the workings of the brain.

As I’m scientifically illiterate the brain stuff is mostly lost on me, it’s the music bit that fascinates me.  For much of my childhood the family home was mostly devoid of music, until as a teenager I discovered my sister’s copy of New Order’s Substance.  It was 1987 and I was fourteen and this video for True Faith, one of the album’s tracks, really blew my mind.

Looking back on it now this video was something of a low budget affair.  All the cameras are stationery, there’s some dodgy costumes, and gig footage is repurposed, but I didn’t know that at the time because I was simply blown away by the creativity evident in the promo.  My love affair with music was ignited back then and even now my brain is probably best-described as a playlist, the soundtrack to my life which has, in equal parts, excited me, distracted me, seduced me, consoled me, taught me, moved me, angered me, motivated me, and sometimes disappointed me.  Like you, I’m sure, I can listen to a piece of music and be immediately transported back to a time and place.

Last year I met an audiologist and asked her why music had such a profound emotional resonance.  She boiled it right down for my scientifically illiterate brain and told me that there is some evidence to suggest that the part of the brain that processes sound (and the other senses) may have some crossover with the part that processes emotion and memory.  That sort of blew me away in the same way the New Order video did back in 1987.

But it’s hard to see how this transfers to a societal or national level.  Remember this?  It was recently voted the nation’s favourite advert:

The person that made this advert is the same person that made Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator and, ahem, Prometheus, yes it’s Ridley Scott.  Created in 1973, the ad’s nostalgic visuals and use of Dvorak’s negro spiritual-influenced 9th symphony (played on very British brass), resonated with a nation facing industrial and international decline.  Later in the 1970s, Patrick Wright explored this theme of the past becoming a cultural presence in On Living in an Old Country and in the 1980s Robert Hewison argued in The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline that nostalgia is no more than a homesickness for the past that protect us from the difficulties of the present.  I’d suggest, then, that my audiologist friend doesn’t quite have all the answers, there’s more than a scientific reason for culture to resonate in our memories.

And just to finish off and highlight how the past is such an invaluable part of our every day existence, those folks at Hovis have been at it again.

This ‘Go on lad’ ad cost £1 million and the message is both subtle and clear – to be British is to eat Hovis – and it evokes the right emotions by reminding us of some of our shared memories.  The Hovis people spent a further £15 million on this campaign and within only three weeks sales had increased by £12 million.  Warburtons must have been furious!

Not sure what Clive Mearing would make of it all, though.

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