My Favorite Things: The Gravitational Pull of Music from Our Formative Years

Posted inCreative Voices

Karen and I were in the parking lot walking into our local Trader Joe’s (TJ’s) the other day. Our TJ’s begins the “shopping journey experience” in the parking lot by playing music over discretely-volumed outdoor speakers.

As we approached the store’s entrance, a new song began. Like the cliché says, I could name that song in four notes…well, chords actually.

It was “Lonely Boy,” by Andrew Gold.

Later, Google reminded me that the song was popular in 1977. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it between then and the TJ’s moment, but I’d venture to say “not a lot.” Last time? No idea.

But the first four chords were as distinctive to me as the four that begin Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

How does that happen?

1. The Elephant: Always On

In my last post, we looked at how the metaphor of The Elephant and The Rider characterizes our presence in the world. The Elephant is our set of embodied, persistent, pre-reflective, sense-making mechanisms that enable our attunement to our surroundings. Neurophysiologists say that The Elephant unconsciously processes roughly 11 millions bits of information per second, mostly through visual and tactile sensory/motor channels. The Rider is capable of consciously attending to about 50 bits/second.

Think about that.

Every second, your Elephant…that part of your mind/body/self that is moving through the world minute-by-minute…is busily sorting 11 million immediate-environment bits into patterns for understanding and managing the demands of this-and-the-next moment. You take a step, the pavement is uneven. The Elephant instantly senses the need for gait adjustment to prevent loss of balance and coordinates your feet and other muscular activity to successfully navigate the next few steps. No problem for The Elephant.

That’s because The Elephant is “good enough” to make sense of most of the implications of the current information. Sometimes, however, The Elephant needs to recruit The Rider into action. Those are moments when something “catches your eye,” in which we suddenly need to “pay attention” to something.

Like those first four chords of “Lonely Boy.” My Elephant heard them and nudged my Rider: “hey, isn’t that Lonely Boy?” My Rider quickly confirmed my Elephant’s recollection, and I immediately began singing along with a song I hadn’t thought of in decades! The song continued as we entered the store, and I kept weirdly singing it aloud (now totally into the moment!) until it was over.

“That was fun,” I thought. Then the next song came on. Honestly, I don’t remember what song it was. But I immediately knew it at the time…or, rather, my Elephant did. Then another, and another. Even though we were shopping for a small Super Bowl get together, I couldn’t help “noticing” that every song was one I knew.

Then it hit me that the TJ’s music selection had been curated to engage Elephants like mine. Baby Boomer Elephants.

Looking around the store, that made sense.

Baby Boomer Elephant ears “came online” between 1946 and 1964. The music our Elephants have heard was created during the previous and subsequent decades, right up ’til the current day. This is true for Silents’, Boomers’, Gen Xers’, Millennials’, Gen Z’s and Gen Alpha’s Elephants. Thanks to the Internet, that means that all of us alive today have access to practically the totality of music ever produced and/or recorded, through some technology…sheet music, vinyl, electronic tape, digital discs, bitstreams.

But each of our Elephants are especially “attuned” to the music of our “formative years.” We may sample music created in other decades (or centuries!) but chances are the music we heard when we were between the ages of five and thirty is more deeply engrained in our Elephant’s “music library” than that made either before or after. That music is more likely to evoke personal memories and emotions than music produced in other times.

If I needed any further proof of that, it was quickly forthcoming on Super Bowl Sunday. The last LVII years have taught us the the Super Bowl Halftime Show™ is one of the few remaining moments of concentrated-real-time-cultural-attention. This year, more than 118 million tuned in, second most in history. We all watched “the same” performance by Rihanna.

Well…our Riders watched the same performance. But our Elephants saw very different shows.

Confession: I could not, for 1 million dollars, sing one Rihanna song. Before the Super Bowl, I could not have named one Rihanna song.

The contrast between my Elephant’s instant identification of “Lonely Boy” by its first four chords and my inability to identify a single Rihanna song is a stark example Elephant attunement. Each of our Elephants is tuned in to a set of interests. I think of interests as vectors: popular music, Chinese cuisine, French New Wave. Our Elephants are especially sensitized to the portions of those vectors that most strongly impacted it during its lifespan. Elephants never totally forget, especially the early stuff.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t develop affinity for music written outside of our Elephant’s formative years. It just means that our Elephants are, by virtue of being embedded in a particular space-time world, more likely to have been exposed to particular pieces and general styles of music than to others.

Some of us, by virtue of a personal exploratory characteristic that we might call openness to experience, are more likely to venture outside of the natural territory into which their Elephant was sonically born. Some of us are, by nature, more given to that exploration than others. Hundreds of millions of people will never voluntarily listen to opera or hip-hop. That’s true even though billions of people have listened to opera and hip-hop and continue to listen to them ever day all over the world. The same for something like Indian classical music. Or Bach.

Music styles are like gravitational fields. We say that we are “attracted” by certain things…colors, scents, food, music. But, we don’t take that metaphor literally enough. The things that we are attracted to…the things most likely to become our favorite things…have a gravitational field that surrounds them, making things that resemble them also attractive. We often call this force field the thing’s “style.”

Your favorite style of music is your Elephant’s natural home territory. Your Elephant’s comfort wandering outside that territory is a way of determining how broadly you will explore music.

2. The Elephant’s Favorites

If you think about your favorite songs, they will give you very strong evidence for locating your Elephant’s musical “archetypal basin.”

I will always be pulled into territory that is anchored by The Beatles. I have a rich history of earlier musical favorites, like doo-wop. But in the early 1960s folk music, particularly Bob Dylan, The Beatles and the British Invasion changed everything. This was when I started to see divisions between my favorites and those of my doo-wop loving friends that signaled the start of much bigger life divergences.

Those songs and artists will always be strong areas of attraction for me when it comes time to listen to music. I also move into the 70s and some music of the 80s as areas of sonic, comfort that I want to listen to over and over again, both because of the immediate experience of the music (the harmonies, the melodies, the lyrics) as well as the emotional associations that are deeply connected with that music.

Thinking about your favorite songs is an invitation to nudge your Elephant into unfamiliar situations. That means that simply because I cannot name a single Rihanna song is in itself an indication of the importance of at least considering listening to Rihanna, or to any of a hundred different artists who are popular in the world today, but with whom I have no experience whatsoever. This is a way for me to broaden my world rather than to build a fortress around it.

Take your Elephant out for walks in unfamiliar territories, exploring new vectors. Our Elephants become rigid, judgmental, cartoonish creatures if we don’t expose them to new ways of living, dressing, dancing, speaking, and listening to music. You don’t have to listen to hours of Indian classical music to begin to appreciate its unique, intricate beauty. Give your Elephant a chance to try it.

And, if you find it boring, remember this thought from musical wizard John Cage:

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.

John Cage

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Photo by Alex Mercado on Unsplash.