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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Memory almost full: here's how to get your musical mojo back

What to do when, for no obvious reason, the songs we have always loved seem to lose their lustre?

Making a jogging playlist can inspire a revolution; music can sound better when combined with the endorphin rush of exercise Getty
Making a jogging playlist can inspire a revolution; music can sound better when combined with the endorphin rush of exercise Getty

Most music fans of a certain age know that memory-­almost-full feeling. We have so many songs, so many melodies and lyrics stored upon our brain’s hard disk that it scarcely feels as though there’s room for any more, however good.

We should always rail against that nothing-new-under-the-sun notion, because great, forward-looking music is still being made today, as in any other era. But what to do when, for no obvious reason, the songs we have always loved seem to lose their lustre? What to do when the albums that soundtracked our teenage years, romances and most treasured memories just don’t sound as good to us as they once did?

Now, I’m certainly not moaning about being a music critic. When compared to my earlier stints working first as a trainee baker and then later a clerical assistant, the job has much to commend it. But it is nonetheless true that the sheer number of listening hours it entails can make it difficult to find the time away from music that is sometimes needed to appreciate the art form anew.

Periods of silence are golden, and listening to something out of necessity, or because it is being foisted upon us in a cafe or at the mall, is rarely ideal. To actually be able to choose when you want to listen to a particular piece of music can feel like a luxury. Consequently, it generally has a positive effect on our listening experience.

What really got me thinking about all this was taking up running again. In the time-honoured fashion of joggers all over the world, I made myself a playlist, put in my earphones and used music to distract me from the mind-numbingly tedious task at hand. What transpired was a revelation.

Want to train like an Olympian? Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ will fire you up Getty
Want to train like an Olympian? Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ will fire you up. Getty

I’d forgotten just how fantastic music can sound when combined with the endorphin rush of regular physical exercise.

Day by day, as I slowly got a little fitter, I came to relish an early morning run soundtracked by Motown classics, by trusted pop bangers such as Rihanna’s Only Girl (In The World), and by the “Hard-rock heaven” playlist I’d made for myself on Spotify. The latter, incidentally, is a not-at-all-guilty pleasure including tracks by Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and Van Halen. Hard rock has always motivated me but then so does Eminem’s Lose Yourself, the perfect listen should you need to imagine you are about to take part in an Olympic final, rather than just going for a little run.

Click to listen to Rihanna’s Only Girl (In The World):

Soon came another insight: those classic songs I loved were, of course, as good as they’d always been. Like old friends, they’d been quietly waiting for me. But I hadn’t been in the right frame of mind to appreciate them. It wasn’t them – it was me. Exercise and the thrill of a soundtracked sunrise by the sea took care of that. One morning, running and listening to World Party’s uplifting, environmentally themed 1990 song When The Rainbow Comes, I felt ecstatically happy. Goosebumps appeared on both arms.

When and where we listen to music, and under what circumstances, matters immensely. It’s a free world, but seeing people reading a book and listening to music at the same time has always been a pet hate of mine.

Music, in the form of a film soundtrack, can clearly enhance the visual images on screen, but can music enhance a text we are reading? There is a case to be made if the music in question is instrumental, but if the music in question has words, then surely there is some kind of sensory conflict going on? Whose voice are you listening to, that of the author or that of the singer? Are you giving either party the attention they deserve? Or is that nobody’s business but yours?

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Read more:

Why do some people stop embracing new music after the age of 28?

Here's why the Backstreet Boys have endured for more than two decades

Dubai's love of 1990s popstars is a double-edged sword

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I have also noticed that the time of day I listen to a particular piece of music can have a significant effect on how I perceive it. Years ago, I read that in London, the drain on the national grid’s electricity supply was strongest around evening mealtime when everyone was cooking, and that this could cause lights to dim. After that, I always entertained the notion that my hi-fi sounded best late at night, because that was when its copper-cable veins were getting the full complement of electricity they needed to make my CD collection shine.

A more tenable theory, though, is the simple fact that some pieces of music are better suited to particular times of day. Naturally, Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning will resonate more at 3am, just as Grieg’s Morning from Peer Gynt sounds best stifling a yawn in your pyjamas over an early breakfast. Also, it is at the top and tail end of the day that we are least distracted.

Click to listen to Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning:

Ultimately, I guess all I’m advocating here is that we be a little more selective about how, when and where we listen to our music. That way, our love affair with the songs that have meant most to us will stand a better chance of enduring.

“Without music, life would be a mistake,” Friedrich Nietzsche said. It’s also a mistake when we don’t give music the time, space and unrivalled attention it needs to nourish us.