Eric Clapton's “Wonderful Tonight” played on the radio to the beat of my sudden and unexpected emotional breakdown, and all I can tell you is that it started when the song began to play. This made no sense, as Eric Clapton was never on my playlist.

In the car parked in my driveway with my kids staring out the window at me, I sat in the car weeping.

OK, kids, pack her bags  — mom finally went nuts.

Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” played on the radio to the beat of my sudden and unexpected emotional breakdown, and all I can tell you is that it started when the song began to play. This made no sense, as Eric Clapton was never on my playlist.

Then it hit me.

Foggy memories of a night with friends came into focus, and I remember dancing with a boy. There was something about that dance, and the way I felt in his arms — the soundtrack to the first dance with my husband.

I forced him to dance with me that night, and I have forced him to dance with me every time since, perhaps that’s why I buried it so deep in my memory. The song conjured not the exact memory but an overwhelming feeling.

It was nostalgia, and music is a powerful carrier of it.

In 2009, a study conducted by Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain, found that people with Alzheimer’s have strong responses when listening to the songs of their youth. These kinds of patients struggle to remember the faces of their children, but the music brought back memories they were unable to reach on their own. 

(You can read that study here: http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2009/02/24/cercor.bhp008.full).

Even if they were unable to conjure details of specific memories, it brought back forgotten feelings, and that’s a lot like what happened to me in the car that day.

It happened another time in the car too — not to me, though.

It was 1988 and my family was driving home from the grocery store. My mom’s lap was full of IGA bags, and she sat in the passenger seat with tears rolling down her face. It was one of the two or three times I’ve seen her cry.

The song was “Ooh Child” by Nina Simone, but I don’t recall the singer’s voice as much as I remember my mom’s emotional rendition of it from the passenger’s seat. I don’t know where she went, but the music had taken her far away.

Like a lot of other things, what my mom did back then makes sense to me now. From the fight my brother and I were probably having in the backseat (it was his fault, I’m sure) to the bills piling up at home from Dad’s latest of 13 foot surgeries, escaping the present even for a moment can be a form of therapy.

I have two favorite bands: Matchbox 20 and Hootie and The Blowfish. I also had an intense Jewel phase during my early 20s to the point where my friends snuck into my car and took her tape (yes, tape) out of my player and hid it.

No, that wasn’t nice. Yes, it was necessary.

One day an old favorite of Jewel came on suddenly and I stopped what I was doing with tears welling in my eyes. Faces I miss and days of my youth swirled around and swept me into another time and place.

Then about three minutes and forty seconds later I returned, right next to the tomatoes in the middle of the Walmart produce department wearing yoga pants and a Veterans Elementary t-shirt — because I’m 38 years old and that’s what I do now.

Depending on the era you most identify with, the artists I am throwing out there may not be familiar; the feeling is, though.

Other than the study I mentioned, I can’t speak to the amazing science behind all of this, but I can tell you it’s a powerful thing. Heart begets heart as the musician connects to the listener in a way that the chords become part of our anatomy. The past lies within us filed under the notes of a song, able to be pulled out and re-lived.

Just think, someone sat down one day with a little ditty in their head and no idea that three decades later it would cause a mother to ugly-cry in her driveway.