Music, Milestones and Memories

Music can take you back to a better time and put you in a better space, says Frances Mensah Williams

The recent deaths of musicians whose names evoke powerful memories and the reported illness of the legend that is Aretha, has had me wondering about the power of music and its ability both to bring back old memories and to motivate new behaviour.

I’ve been accused of breaking into song (tuneless, but what can you do?) during a conversation each time a word or phrase brings a song to mind.  A very annoying habit, says Daughter Number One, unwittingly giving me yet another good reason for continuing to do it.  And after all, I reason, I didn’t get to live thus far without having built up a huge repertoire of songs and their associated memories.


Songs and music take us back.  Who can ever forget the first song they danced to on their wedding day?  Or the hymn that had them sobbing by the graveside of a departed loved one?

Music – like scents – evokes the most powerful memories, dragging half-forgotten events and incidents out of the storeroom of our minds.

Nothing captures the essence of a time or the mood of an era better than music.  I remember as a child being awestruck by the stridently confident lyrics of ‘Young, Gifted and Black’.  Instead of the lacklustre and patronising word ‘coloured’ that others used about us, we could, at last, say the word ‘Black’; shout it out loud, claim the colour with pride and make it ‘our thing’!

As a child growing up in independent Ghana, although far away from the struggles of apartheid South Africa, I still felt the pain of our oppressed black brothers and sisters when my father played Miriam Makeba’s heartbreaking record ‘Khawuleza’.  I remember how the sadness and loss in her voice filled me with outrage at what was being perpetrated elsewhere in Africa against our own.

And as adolescents living in London, while we weren’t physically part of the civil rights movement fighting for equality on the urban streets of the United States, we recognised the bewilderment and anger in the words of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ and we responded in our hearts and on the dance floor when Teddy Pendergrass, along with Harold and the Bluenotes, urged us all to be part of a global change for the better in ‘Wake Up Everybody’.

We mourned for lost leaders who died too soon when we listened to ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ and sighed for the kind of love Barry promised with ‘My First, My Last, My Everything’.  We got on the ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ with Gladys and stayed up late to watch the first televised screening of Michael’s iconic ‘Thriller’ video.

And who, in my generation, can forget the sense of power and optimism that we felt as we hit the dance floor to ‘Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now!’.  We could do anything because we had the funk!

Motivating Memories

Fast forward to 2011. The beginning of a new year should be exhilarating but, for many of us, it can be depressing.  Our shiny new resolutions crash by the wayside, our jobs look shaky as businesses struggle to survive, unpaid bills pile up and – at least, for those of us in the West – gloomy weather leaves us suffering from real and perceived doses of the seasonal affective disorder that is so accurately termed SAD.

But while it won’t pay the bills or guarantee your job security, music can put you in a different space and take you to a better place.

Music can help you remember a better time and recapture the mood.  Remember when we picked ourselves up from a bad romance and soothed our battered spirits by singing along to Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive?’ And how we were soon back to strutting our re-energised selves along to Aretha, and demanding ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’?

As Jean Cocteau wrote, “All good music resembles something. Good music stirs by its mysterious resemblance to the objects and feelings which motivated it.”

Feeling blue?  Let Bill Withers remind you that today too can be a ‘Lovely Day’. Recapture the joy you felt when you first listened to Stevie Wonder blast out ‘Sir Duke’ and let the optimism you felt yesterday give you a new take on today.

Feeling discouraged?  Let Labi Siffre’s ‘Something Inside So Strong’ remind you what you’re made of.
Not feeling the love from those around you?  Listen to George Benson’s ‘The Greatest Love of All’ and re-learn that valuable lesson about loving yourself. Trust me – it works.

By Frances Mensah Williams, the Chief Executive of Interims for Development, a Human Resources and Training consultancy and Editor of ReConnect ( an online careers and jobs publication for African professionals around the world.