Songs My Mother Sang

Songs My Mother Sang


Reflecting on those irreplacable memories of mom for Mother’s Day

My mother is in her mid-80s and in a state of physical and mental decline. She can’t move or form sentences like the extroverted supermom that she once was. Her responses are short: “yes,” “no,” “I don’t know,” “I love you,” or “goodbye.” Time has not been kind. 

She can, however, sing. Not that she could audition for “The Voice,” but when prompted, she is able to sing complete songs from her younger days. Many of us don’t know the amazing phenomenon that music therapists rely upon: people who can’t speak often can sing. Music can rehabilitate the elderly coping with age-related ailments. Music therapy is particularly helpful for patients suffering from dementia or stroke-related brain damage. 

The Broca area is the region of the brain that governs language processing. If it is damaged, the person loses some or all of their ability to speak. But singing is created in older regions of the brain.

Dementia refers to a variety of brain diseases that generally worsen over time, debilitating the person’s ability to speak or move, often ending in catatonia. Music can reverse that. “Alive Inside” (2014) is a documentary exploring the astonishing revitalization of Alzheimer’s patients simply by listening to music. 

With commentary by Oliver Sachs and Bobby McFerrin, the film shows us the power of music to quicken those who have been shut down by the disease. In one scene, 94-year-old Henry is withdrawn and mostly non-verbal. When his attendant puts an iPod with Henry’s favorite music to his ears, he immediately lights up and starts to sing and move. He is returned to life. 

In his book, This is Your Brain on Music, neuroscientist Dan Levitin explains the importance of music in our emotional lives, especially from our teens to our mid-20s. The music that we heard before our brains fully matured, “locks in” with particular gravity. Simply put, music from high school years has a superior significance. I graduated high school in 1979. When I hear “YMCA,” or “I Will Survive,” I have very specific and immediate recall of faces and places. 

Here’s where the intergenerational phenomenon with mothers and music gets interesting. Mothers are emotionally connected to the songs that they heard in high school. Now jump to a moment in time when your mother had you, a fussing baby, in her arms. What might she do? She might sing something to you to calm you, something that was easy to remember, something that was emotionally important. 

Recently I asked my frail, mostly non-verbal mother what song she remembered singing to me as a child. Without hesitation, she burst into a complete rendition of “I Love You for Sentimental Reasons,” by Nat King Cole from 1946. She would have first heard it when she was 16. She hadn’t sung it to me in nearly 40 years, yet she sang it with fervor and it tugged at my heart. I was her baby and I melted. 

You can experiment with this yourself. If possible, ask your mother what songs she sang to you as an infant. Otherwise, find out what she might have listened to when she was a teenager. With a quick Internet search, you’ll probably find some recordings. When you listen, see if it stirs something deep inside, because it may have been a song your mother sang to you.


John Niec leads the house band at the Home of Truth, 1300 Grand St. On Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 8, at 10:30 a.m. they will present a mini-concert: My Mother’s Songs.