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They shot a movie once, in my hometown.

Can you read those words without singing them in your mind? Without hearing Gord Downie's vibrato or the tension-building guitar? Without anticipating the raucous break to come?

If you are a Canadian of a certain age, I'm guessing you can't.

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But what else comes to mind? Does the song take you back to a particular time in your life – a love affair, a new city, a school term?

Music is woven into our memories in a beautiful, indelible way. It helps form the fabric of our lives and then it allows us to instantly, viscerally recall chapters of our lives long since closed. The songs become instant picture postcards; melodic souvenirs.

So when Prince or David Bowie dies – or we learn, my God, that Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer – we are affected in a very deep, genuine way. It is a kick to the gut – in large part because of what music does to our brain.

Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, explained to me this week that we feel a connection to certain musicians because of a chemical process that goes back tens of thousands of years.

"In our hunter-gatherer or forager days, we had to band together in order to protect ourselves from predators or enemy tribes and one of the evolutionary forces behind that was singing together around a campfire. And people who sing together experience a release of the chemical oxytocin; and oxytocin causes feelings of trust to be increased and causes you to feel more socially bonded to the people you're around," said Levitin, who is the James McGill Professor of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University.

"So if you really like music and you're listening to it, because of this chemical release you're going to feel trustful toward and bonded with the artist."

But the way we connect to music may be changing. Music has never been more accessible – and that may be affecting how we experience it.

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Until fairly recently, we had to create a music collection a piece at a time – deliberately, making choices. We went to the record store. We decided whether to spend our 20 bucks on The Hip or Tori Amos or the Beastie Boys. And then we played the record again and again. It was there for all the important events of our lives – dates, parties – and the mundane ones: studying, getting ready for work, cleaning our apartment.

This might make me sound ancient, but bear with me: When I bought my first CD player, I could only afford five compact discs. They were expensive – and I was living on a meagre radio journalist's salary. So I played the heck out of those five, then six, then seven albums.

In 1992, one of these musical investments was Fully Completely. It was on very high rotation and was both background music and a preoccupation of mine; I obsessed over Downie's lyrics and their meaning. So even now, hearing any song on that album transports me right back to my Hamilton, Ont., attic apartment. I hear Wheat Kings or Pigeon Camera and I am instantly planted on my mint-green futon, hearing the voices of friends who climbed the many stairs to visit.

Today, my life would sound different. I would be able to stream as many songs as I wanted for far less money. Would I feel the same sort of connection to any of that music in my hypothetical future? Maybe not.

"I meet a new crop of 17- and 18-year-olds every year," Levitin says, when I ask him about this. "I can see how things are changing. For the last 10 years or so, I find that people still listen to music but it plays a less central role in their lives and it's less meaningful to them."

Like me, he remembers going to other people's homes and checking out their music collections and learning something about them that way. Now, music is generally on our devices, not our shelves – and the ease of acquisition means we might not even remember how it got there. Increasingly, we're just streaming it.

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"So there's less of a sense of ownership or connection to an individual artist or song because it's not something you curated," says Levitin, who first heard The Hip when he reviewed Road Apples for Billboard – and loved it.

This week, feeling something more sharp and painful than nostalgia, I pumped Fully Completely at full blast. Nearly a quarter-century and thousands of kilometres from that Hamilton flat, the trees outside my Vancouver home were bursting green, obscuring the mountains. My past came crashing through the window as I contemplated life – hard, huge and haunted.

I thought about the years, so many years, gone by; people gone from my life, people gone from the world, people on their way out of it. What can you do? They've all gone. We'll go, too.

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