debbie millman

Friday, March 16, 2007

Misty Water-Colored

Name an iconic song and I can tell you everything else that was occurring in my life at the time it was popular: for example, Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” had me in the front seat of Steven Bimini’s bronze Pinto, hot and sweaty, in white shorts, a Yes T-shirt, yellow flip-flops, legs covered in mosquito bites sneaking cigarettes and arguing about the effectiveness of Jimmy Carter’s cabinet. Led Zeppelin’s "Kashmir" had me at Eric Matthew’s pool party, his poodle drunk on bad beer, running in mad circles around the backyard while I tried to convince myself that the “I am beginning to” answer my boyfriend provided to the pointed question, “Do you love me?” was an acceptable one. Cut to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and I am back in the John Glenn High School cafeteria for my junior Prom, clad in a pale yellow Laura Ashley-esque prom dress, looking up at a ceiling covered in tin foil in order to match both the Prom theme and Stevie Nick’s lyrics “Mirror In the Sky.”

President Nixon’s resignation came the summer of Orlean’s “Dance with me” as I fell in love with a boy of 18 wearing an orange and white stripped tube top, gauzy white culottes and an armful of graduated plastic orange bracelets; my parents got divorced when the Beatles “Let It Be” topped the charts and my favorite outfit was a pair of white knee high plastic boots and a pink paisley mini-dress. The summer after I graduated college featured the albums "Synchronicity" by the Police, David Bowie’s "Let Dance" and my new Tower Records T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. In short, music has been a predominant marker in my life; the mere mention of a tune or hearing the first chords of a song creates a crescendo of images and sensory perceptions unlike any other stimulus.

These moments of sensory overload are frozen in time—I have but a scant memory of what might have come before or after, and I find that I can’t recall any other outfits or meals or parties with the same zeal without the benefit of my mental musical accompaniment. Time slows and then stops as this visceral sculpture pushes forth, replete with touch and smell and yearning and youth. The music is as much a part of the memory as the memory is of identity.

What is it about music that provides this shortcut to the minutiae of both our collective and individual histories? Dr. Oliver Sacks, who has spent his career exploring the workings of mind and brain, is intrigued with the indelible impression that music makes on our synapses. One patient’s bout with encephalitis wiped his memory clean, but left his ability to play and conduct music completely intact. Just minutes after a performance, however, he had no recollection of the music at all. Another patient, left without language after a brain injury, was still able to sing unimpaired.

According to Washington Post writer Shankar Vedantam. “Robert Zatorre, a McGill scientist, once hypothesized that because music is abstract, it must activate parts of the brain that process abstract ideas.. But when Zatorre asked people to listen to their favorite pieces of music as he ran brain scans on them, he found that music activated very ancient parts of the brain.”

What is fundamentally interesting about this is that there seems to be a duality to the relationship between music and memory. According to William J. Cromie, “Music activates the "temporal" lobes of the brain. The temporal lobes are involved in processing music and memory." Certain types of music may activate the temporal lobes and help people learn, process and remember information. As a result, music opens new pathways into the mind and abstract reasoning and conceptualization are enhanced by musical activities. Music also creates a connection between the two hemispheres of the brain." But the brain only remembers that information which is “hooked” to emotions. Music essentially increases our attention to sounds, timing and perception and enhances memory by attaching emotional context and activating multiple memory pathways. And because cognitive development, physical development and emotions are all intertwined; all brain systems are affected by music. What is most interesting to me is because of this inherent multi-faceted dependency, having music as part of an experience actually helps us remember it better.

Recently I was in a karaoke bar and watched as my friends belted out the greatest hits of the ‘80s in grand tradition. There was a rousing version of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Duran Duran’s “Rio” and bar-wide participation of Culture Club’s “Do You Want To Hurt Me?” After hours of urging me to join the festivities, I finally agreed under certain conditions. I would sing something that wasn’t from the ‘80s and a tune that I loved with all my heart. As I poured through the voluminous catalog, I stopped with assurance when I saw that they had the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” This was a song I could do! This was a song that would certainly prevent me from looking like an idiot! I sauntered up to the stage, hubris in hand. As I dramatically fiddled with the microphone, I realized I had left my glasses in my handbag and couldn’t read the karaoke monitor. But I brushed aside my worries when I remembered that this song was so imbedded in my personal history I could likely sing in backwards. But after the first stanza, I realized I was wrong. While I could remember exactly what I was wearing, thinking, dreaming and drinking the moment “Let It Be” first hit the airwaves, I realized that I had absolutely no idea what the actual words of the song were. What was the line after “And in my hour of darkness, she is standing there in front of me?” Was it “There will be an answer, let it be” or “Whisper words of wisdom, let it be?” I had absolutely no idea which one, nor of any of the lyrics that followed.

My friends laughed as I fumbled and I realized they thought I was just a reluctant performer. But I knew better. While the song helped form my memories, the memories obliterated the actual content of the song. As my friends roared with hysteria, I sheepishly smiled as I proceeded to make up my own words to the song. And then I realized that unlike the lyrics, I would never, ever be able to forget this moment. And if I tried, I knew that my friends would have enormous joy in reminding me every chance they could.

2 Comments:

Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

That's one of the most interesting catch-22's I've ever heard.

3/17/2007 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger MCALDWELLC said...

There are certain albums I can only play in the privacy of my own company because they are loaded with such emotional memories and connections for me. A friend of mine references this as "weapons grade music" and it is so true. Nothing else functions as a time machine like music.

3/19/2007 03:44:00 PM  

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Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at FastCompany.com and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on DesignObserver.com. In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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