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Life as a Musical Time Traveller

For music addicts such as myself, the end of November is almost as significant as any nationwide holiday, because with it comes the all-anticipated Spotify Wrapped. And in honour of the recent Wrapped, I wanted to talk about a term I recently came across called music-evoked autobiographical memory.

The idea of reliving memories through music is not uncommon. It's widely accepted that your taste in music is effectively “locked in” when you're a teenager and rarely changes, which is a big reason behind why people in their thirties, fourties and beyond tend to still prefer music of their adolescent years, and no doubt relive those years when they listen to it. People in relationships often have “their song”. Some people experience a visceral anger or sadness when hearing a song that reminds them of an ex. Everyone has “their” song, “their” album. We share music all the time, be it through making a playlist just for someone, or posting a snippet of a song on an Instagram note. Music is our way to connect with others, to connect with our feelings, and to connect with our own past.

When I received my 2023 Wrapped, I was brutally called out by the slide that told me I was a “time traveller”, which apparently meant that I constantly revisit songs of my personal past. And if my playlist of 14 hours (and counting) containing all my favourite songs since 2018 is anything to go by, I'd say being a musical time traveller is accurate. That said, “favourite” is a loose adjective for those songs - some are indeed my favourites, but others are: songs I may have overheard during a pivotal moment in my life; songs that are actually the favourites of the people I love; or just songs I once had on repeat to the point that I associate them with nothing else but that era of my life. It's a… unique playlist, to say the least. The genres span from heavy metal and alternative rock to synth pop, and the artists span from Taylor Swift to Black Foxxes to TENDER (highly recommend these, by the way), displaying semi-seamlessly how my phases in musical tastes evolved. To list every genre and artist would take up an entire paragraph, so I'll spare you the torture, but let's just say that if you were to put that playlist on shuffle, you'd be in for an interesting 14-hour long session of emotional whiplash.

Spotify offers a similar thing every Wrapped - the opportunity to save a playlist of your top 100 songs of the year. I do take this opportunity and I do save those playlists (alongside the 14-hour one) but there is one crucial difference between my playlist and the Wrapped ones.

I deliberately made my playlist to be listened to in the order the songs are in - chronologically - and pretentiously dubbed it “the soundtrack of my life” for a while. In short, I see the playlist as a story and the songs are organised by when I discovered them or when they became important to me, as opposed to the statistical organisation of the Wrapped playlists. Naturally, that 14-hour long playlist just makes sense to me, as the only thing that connects the songs is the fact that each and every one carries some sort of personal memory. And, as I continue to go through life, I update it with new songs, adding to my ever-growing collection. Whereas some people collect rocks or photos, I collect songs.

Perhaps the first and most important reason I do this is so I can revisit emotions. I place a great value on the act of journalism - for years I have kept a diary and still do to this day, and when I'm truly, truly bored I will take a moment to read it as if the story of my life is a novel (I don't have a main character complex, I promise…), and remind myself of lessons I've learnt, the emotions I felt and sometimes to feel grateful that I have grown and am now in a better place. To do this while listening to songs of importance to me at the time is a very intense experience. At this stage of my life, I am changing in huge ways constantly, so much so that who I was a year ago is half a stranger to me. So I read her old words and listen to her old favourites in an attempt to connect with her.

Some notable songs include (and I also highly recommend): Whatever Let's You Cope by Black Foxxes, Hell to the Liars by London Grammar, Cinnamon Girl by Lana Del Rey, Grip by Lights and You're On Your Own Kid by Taylor Swift. In fact, a slower, sadder remix of Grip was released around the same time I discovered the original. Grip reminds me of a very vulnerable time in my life (not that the lyrics would suggest so), so I, being the dramatic individual I am, decided to add the remix to the playlist despite it never being a favourite of mine. That is just one example of how that playlist has become a medium for storytelling, and I try to carefully select what goes on it.

That said, some songs sneak up on me, and shoehorn their own way into the playlist. Back in 2019, Walk by Kwabs was (hilariously) the song that just so happened to be playing at the exact moment I figured out I was bisexual, and so that song will now be what signifies that defining moment for the rest of my life. It couldn't have been something relevant like a girl in red song, could it? And, in an equally hysterical manner, we fell in love in october by girl in red just reminds me of Maths homework because it was popular during the time I began my A Levels (my sincerest of apologies to the entire LGBTQIA+ community for that).

That playlist contains songs that, while not necessarily repeated favourites, were playing in the background of some pivotal moment in my life. Hypersonic Missiles by Sam Fender reminds me of my first trip to Liverpool with a group of friends in early 2022, because one of my friends played it while we all chatted in the apartment we stayed in. Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol reminds me of a particular karaoke night at the Union, where, once someone began singing it, everyone dropped to the floor and held hands to sing along. Times like that, times that genuinely feel as though they were plucked out of a coming-of-age movie, are incredibly precious to me. So I attempt to preserve them in my playlist, like I'm a curator in a museum of all the moments in my life. 

I am forever grateful to my 15-year-old self for having the idea to start collecting songs like this. This is a habit I will most likely continue for decades, if I can, because it allows me to return to moments I never want to forget whenever I feel like it. I can connect with my past self, which is a profoundly therapeutic experience. It can be comforting to be transported to a situation in the past, to be able to compare it to where you are now, and to be thankful that you have grown, changed, and evolved. So not only is it a fun hobby to maintain, and a habit in preservation and journalism, it can indirectly be a great practice in gratitude and reflection. 

So if, like me, you are a musical “time traveller” and relive moments through songs, I would highly recommend doing something similar to what I have - keep a musical diary. Compile a playlist of your favourites through time, in chronological order, and then listen to it in full. It's an oddly surreal experience.

Freya <3 (she/they)


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