Why Music is One of My Favourite Ways to Travel

The power of sound to unleash a memory.  
man with headphones
Sounds can transport us to the colours, smells and emotions of another time and place. Photo: Jonathan Grado/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

The roar interrupted our afternoon chai break.

In less than a minute our safari guide, my father and I were in the jeep and revving up the engine, cups of tea hurriedly downed. We flew through the forest, the wind whooshing across our faces. The roars were getting louder; we were close. We could hear the jungle’s alarm bells ringing in the high-pitched barks of the chital deer. Soon enough, we turned a corner and there they were. Two majestic tiger siblings, less than 15 feet from us. The guide killed the engine and immediately, a heavy stillness enveloped us. All I could hear was the manic thumping of my heart. And the raw, guttural growls of the striped big cats, a primal sound I knew I’d never forget.

Only at the moment, I wasn’t actually in Ranthambore but six months in the future, at home in Mumbai. I had chanced upon one of my audio recordings of the trip, and I found myself suddenly reliving the entire safari in crisp detail. As I heard our excited whispers as we gazed in awe at the big cats, I saw us zipping along the dirt tracks and rumbling rocky paths, past the noisy babble of a stream, the warm afternoon sun baking the fragrances of the forest into our clothes, and the cheek-hurting grins we exchanged.

Here’s a clip from my Ranthambore trip. Despite the birds and insects calling out to one another, the forest inspires zen-like calm.

We’ve all experienced a sound or a song yanking our minds into the past like a sonic lasso, momentarily transporting us to the colours, smells, tastes and emotions aroused in another place and time. A few bars of music on the radio, or the sound of a golawalla (popsicle vendor) clanging his spoon along a row of glass bottles is enough to dredge up long-forgotten moments from the trenches of our brains. That’s why a soundscape is one of my favourite ways to travel; I could be on the train heading to work but the instant I plug in my earphones, I am elsewhere. Maroon 5 takes me back to Cairo where I listened to Songs About Jane on repeat, just like Jamie Cullum conjures up trips as a teenager to Ahmedabad, and Derek Trucks brings back visions of family visits to Coimbatore.

There’s some science to the power of music to trigger memories. In 2011, a Finnish research team found that several parts of the brain are employed when we listen to music, including the limbic areas that are associated with emotions and the formation of memories. Given that the brain processes reams of information every minute, music “helps because it provides a rhythm and rhyme… which helps unlock that information with cues.” A song can catalyse an experience that neuroscientists label “mental time travel”, described as “the recollection of memories so rich in detail regarding time and place of an original experience that it is much like travelling through time.” Whenever a friend of mine listens to the Passenger album All The Little Lights, he remembers walking around Amsterdam on his first solo trip, playing the album on loop as he stomped off the cold and his self-consciousness with a cigarette. It’s been a year since but even at a traffic jam in Andheri, one of those songs can still have him involuntarily tugging his shirt tight as if against a chill and craving a smoke.

I know what he means. I’m a huge Backstreet Boys fan (please save the eye-rolls, I am a proud ’90s kid). As soon as “Everybody” starts playing in the car, I’m transported to two summers ago in New York, when I saw them live in concert. I’m immediately in a sea of screaming twentysomething women. We’re all singing and dancing at a gorgeous open-air theatre that sits snugly by the bay. I recall the salty sea breeze that evening and the schoolgirl-giddiness I had the entire day before the gig. For three exhilarating minutes I’m in a different space. The moment the song ends, I snap back to the present.

Press play for a sense of what plays my head when I hear a Backstreet Boys song on the radio. For all its tinny quality, the clip still hits the spot for me. You may want to turn the volume down a little.

I discovered through my recorder that sounds can be as good a trigger as music. I recently played back my first interview for a story on cricket in New York, for which I had spent weekends crisscrossing the boroughs of a city I didn’t know, going from one cricket match to the next and talking to Caribbean and South Asian expats. We bonded over our love for cricket, and homesickness.

Listening to the clip at home in Mumbai, I felt the same anxiety that had bubbled up on my way to interview the cricketer whom I had called out of the blue. And then I recalled the moment that the anxiety had suddenly lifted. I was crossing that field in Brooklyn when I heard snatches of Bollywood songs and colourful Hindi gaalis (insults) that could have just as easily been yelled during the matches I’d attended in Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai. And just like that, the butterflies in my stomach vanished.

Of all our five senses, sound usually plays second or third fiddle to smell and sight. We’ve been conditioned to rely on our nose and eyes primarily when we first engage with an environment. It’s easy enough to recall the smell of a particular shop or the most vivid sights on our journeys, but rarely do we remember what it sounded like to walk across a room. And that’s a damn shame, given how evocative sound can be as a medium. For me, as cheesy as it sounds, turning up the volume and hitting “Play” is the cheapest ticket out.

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    Kamakshi Ayyar is Features Writer on National Geographic Traveller India's web team. She's partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.

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