Music and Memory Lane

The house lights dimmed and the recorded message reminded everyone to turn off their cell phone sounds, please. Munching replaced beeps and chirps, and an unusually strong scent of popcorn teased my nose. Chattering became a hum as the concert master appeared, bowed, and tuned the symphony orchestra. Maestro appeared, acknowledged applause, and the orchestra stood. The snare drum rolled, and “The Star Spangled Banner” sounded. Everyone who could sang along, then sat. The conductor took the podium. He raised his hands. An expectant hush settled over the crowd. A series of very familiar trumpet and violin notes filled the concert hall, and in my mind’s eye, words began scrolling up a starscape, followed by the iron-grey hull of an Imperial Star Destroyer that just kept going, and going, and going. I was very young, and in awe all over again.

Scent is the most powerful invoker of memory, because it is so visceral. But sound can be almost as strong. Combine those five notes with the scent of popcorn? I’m right back in a theater in Omaha Nebraska, staring at something I’d never imagined could be. Robots, starships, Darth Vader and Obi Won Kenobi, the ‘Falcon sliding through spaces that only a fool or Han Solo would dare to tread . . .

I wasn’t the only one, because when the opening theme ended, silence, pure and absolute silence filled the hall until maestro lowered his hands. Almost 2,000 people in total stillness, holding their collective breath. Then everyone was on their feet, cheering like mad. Light-sabers waved, and it was off to the races, or at least to the John Williams tribute concert. After “Princess Leia’s Theme,” the hush lasted almost ten seconds before the applause and cheers. “Superman” didn’t get quite the same level of noise, “Harry Potter” and the “Raiders March” almost did. The concert closer, “Throne Room Scene and Final Credits” brought the house down. I”m sorry they had to trim “Jaws” from the concert, because it’s one of the best uses of a theme to foreshadow a story I’ve heard.

For over an hour I was a kid, or a kid-at-heart, seeing movie scenes and enjoying the talents of the best known currently active movie composer in the US. Yes, with so many scores back to back, you can hear the trademark John Williams intervals and pattern, and it becomes noticeable. Then you hear “Hedwig’s Theme,” and it’s something different. Or the opening of E.T., before the “flying music” starts, and again, very different. I have the album Three Sacred Trees, which includes several non-soundtrack compositions Williams did for the Houston Symphony and others, and you’d never know that they are by movie-score-Williams. Heck, some of his movie music doesn’t sound like John Williams. OTOH, I bet you can’t hear a trumpet fifth and not think, “Star Wars.”

It was the scent of popcorn combined with hearing the music without headphones that pulled me back so strongly into that magic moment in the theater. There’s power in “fresh” music, in the interpretation and variation and communication between performers and listeners. Even as many times as I’ve been to concerts, I’d forgotten that power. It will be very, very interesting to be back on the other side of the footlights, to see if the symphony and chorus can do it again.


5 thoughts on “Music and Memory Lane

  1. Sometimes, the sound triggers the memory of the smell.

    At the University of Redacted in the early 1970s, Saturday night movies were popular fare in a couple of the campus auditoria. 2001 A Space Odyssey was readily available, and got the 8PM slot at the larger of the venues when it played. Frequently. I lost count of the number of times I saw the movie.

    Most of the time, when Bowman approached the monolith and Ligeti’s works started, you could smell freshly lit reefers. On one occasion, the smell of juniper berries was overwhelming when a nearby participant started to drink gin. Memories of those two smells hits me whenever I’m playing the sound track album. (Not guilty to generating either of the smells. 🙂 )


  2. Both sound and the written word work for me. For example I would much rather read the Lord of The Rings than watch the movie since the story is much more alive in my mind’s eye. Same thing with music but it has been a while since I was at a live venue. Should start but it is a long drive to town and the venue is no longer in the best part of town and all sorts of other lame excuses.

  3. Sound and smells ARE keys for many of our memories… And in many cases are age dependent, too!

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