Musical Technologies of Memory

I have an electric guitar in my office. Cherry red and white, it lives on a little stand situated between one of my bookshelves and a file cabinet. Sometimes when I get stuck on a manuscript or course preparation, I pick it up and just play for a little while (without amplification) to clear my mind. I find the feel of the strings between my fingers allows me to relax and think about other things for a while, which often helps me work through whatever has me temporarily stuck. At other times, it sparks conversations with students and colleagues who notice it upon entering my office. In such cases, some people ask about its origin, design, or sound while others comment on its appearance or seek to get me to play a bit (to varying degrees of success). While preparing for my university’s graduation ceremony this past week, I found myself staring at it and thinking about an article I read by Bryce Merrill concerning technologies of memory.

In the article, the author explores the interactional use of technology (specifically home recordings) to create and invoke memories. Like many professors I know, I see a lot of these technologies of memory at work each year before, during, and after graduation ceremonies. Students pose for photos in front of the school, faculty are recruited for photos and videos students may take with them into the next stage of their lives, and parents and other loved ones roam around with video cameras and other assorted equipment in search of every possible artifact of these moments. Staring at my guitar, thinking about graduation, and remembering Merrill’s article, I found myself wondering about the memories contained in musical instruments.

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of being around a lot of musical instruments and speaking with many different people from a wide variety of backgrounds who own these technological forms. The vast majority of the time I have encountered stories that go with the instruments. Whether I think about the one who received their “most prized” accordion for their fifth birthday from their grandpa, the one who took their favorite ukulele everywhere because it reminded them of the sibling who passed away not long after giving it as a gift, the one who always hugged the first guitar they received from their life partner before and after every performance, or any number of other people who cherished the memories contained within their instruments as much as the instruments themselves, I have regularly experienced the ways people embed memories – and other elements of selfhood – into their musical instruments. I am no different in this regard. While I could write about the bass guitar (still the best birthday surprise ever) my life partner gave me or the Telecaster (I drooled over it in college) one of my closest friends let me have, in this post I’ll share the memories embedded in the electric guitar I keep in my office.

The story begins a few years ago when I was a nervous graduate student instructor, and the original owner of the guitar took one of my classes in his last semester to complete his degree. Although I was not aware of it at the time, this class would be the first time he ever heard someone in an authoritative position talk about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in a positive way. I can’t pretend he was an especially noticeable student. Rather, he barely said a word, did his work (quite well honestly), and disappeared quickly following every class. I was actually surprised when I received a thank you letter from him after the class because I barely spoke to him directly (outside of lectures) during the course.

Over three years later, however, we ran into each other in a coffee shop in a different town, and he cried as he told me the thank you letter he sent me after the class was the first time he ever told anyone he was gay. He then told me that the next week he’d moved to the city we were sitting in at that moment, and a couple weeks later he’d met the man who became his husband. In the midst of the conversation, he noticed I was reading a book on guitar playing, and I explained that I had recently picked it up without thinking too much about this detail. We chatted for a bit longer before he had to leave for work. As he left, he asked if I would come to his house sometime and meet his husband, and I agreed to do so because it seemed really important to him.

When I arrived at his house, I didn’t really know what to expect. How often do you learn you changed someone’s life for the better years after the fact, and what are you supposed to do in such times? If there was a playbook, I had never read it. After walking into the house, however, I forgot all these thoughts when I looked up and saw something that took my breath away. There was a wall full of beautiful guitars (including the one that now lives in my office), and there were records and other types of musical technology all over the place. As my former student moved around boxes (he was getting ready to move cross country with his husband at the time), he explained that he’d been playing since he was a kid and collecting musical instruments and recordings just as long. After a lovely couple rounds of drinks with him and his husband, he said he invited me there to give me one of the guitars as a thank you and so I would never forget what I did for him.

I have to admit I was amazed, and I didn’t know what to say. At first, I tried unsuccessfully to turn the offer down in every way I could imagine. After some time and some tears, I realized that this was incredibly important to him and his husband. I did not own an electric guitar yet and I wasn’t sure if I would play it (I’ve always loved acoustic instruments most), but that didn’t seem to matter so I finally agreed to select one of the guitars. After looking through the guitars for a while, I ultimately selected the guitar I see and touch every time I go to work these days, and my former student’s husband handed me a small amplifier because he figured I should have one just in case I wanted to play it. I think I will always remember the joy on both their faces as we said goodbye that night, and I drove away with an unexpected new guitar in my trunk.

Thinking about this particular musical technology of memory, I smiled and touched the neck of the guitar last week as I set out to witness the graduation of another batch of students. In the process, I wondered what, if anything, I would remember about them years later and what, if anything, they might remember about me in the future.  I also wondered what musical technologies of memory other people treasure, and what elements of their life are represented in these technological forms. What are your musical technologies of memory (including but not limited to home recording equipment, instruments, records, stereos, and concert memorabilia)? What do these artifacts mean to you and what memories do they recall?

J. Sumerau


About Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog

The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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13 Responses to Musical Technologies of Memory

  1. Reblogged this on Marketing, Interaction & Technology and commented:
    over on the SSSI Music blog Jason Sumerau posted an interesting piece on Musical Technologies of Memory

  2. My memories focus on the old violin I have had since I was about 5 years old (in 1947). My Hungarian parents bought it for me and also paid for me to learn to play. The violin is a traditional instrument in Hungary, especially among Hungarian romany: Golden Earrings the 1947 film and song epitomised for me the music it represented. My training was traditional too, in the hands of an Englishman who taught me, learning the scales, playing simple tunes to start with and progressing to light classical. I still have this instrument which has got a decent full-bodied and mellow sound. I take it out from time to time and play some of the old songs by ear, especially an old Hungarian popular song from the early 1950s “the clouds are gathering over the forest”. But most of the songs I play are a mixture of easily-memorised classical and popular.

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      This is a beautiful example of memory work via instruments! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Reblogged this on My Symbolic Interaction and commented:
    An afterthought: violin is vey much an instrument for the expression of emotions. vibrato.

  4. Music technology has improved by leaps and bounds over my lifetime. In the 1960s I had a large and cumbersome tape recorder. It was the size and weight of a suitcase. I used it to record many pieces of music from the radio but the start and end of the recording was difficult. It would have been better to have recorded everything, but sometimes the disc jockey would talk over the start or finish, very irritating…And how does one find the start of a particular piece of music in a long recording of many records? Not easily, even if, like me, you wrote down each recording and then the place in the tape where it could be found…

  5. Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

    The are intriguing insights, thanks for sharing!

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