Was it simply that I was listening to a piece of music I like in a place that I like? It certainly helped, but it is also the case that mid-20th Century British music often reminds me of the sea. A lot of it was written with the sea in mind: Britten's Peter Grimes, Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony and so on. Then there are all the black-and-white British war films (The Cruel Sea, for example) set in the Atlantic with scores written by the likes of Alan Rawsthorne. (You know the sort of thing: officers on the bridge in their duffle-coats, scanning the horizon through their binoculars for U-boats in between swigging from mugs of tea).
I had a similar musical experience about a year ago, at the seaside, not far from Dover. I was standing at the top of a cliff, looking out over the Channel. The light had an enchanting quality about it: the tankers and freighters in the distance seemed to be floating in a luminous blue pool. I was immediately reminded of Debussy's La Mer and then realised that Debussy had in fact written that quintessentially French work in Eastbourne, a short ride down the coast from where I stood.
How does the mind associate what we see with what we hear? Of course, the process can be very straightforward: the association of our surroundings with a particular piece or style of music can simply arise from past experience, or common usage, as with any other mental association. Hence, I associate The Velvet Underground with Manchester and Bebop jazz with Scottish mountains. However, I find when driving on the motorway that if I listen to say, the structurally repetitive music of Steve Reich, it draws my attention to the repetitive structures of the road. Listening to Beethoven, on the other hand, draws my attention to organic structures, such as the trees on the side of the road.
If this experience is typical, then our brains are clearly interested in the structure of music in time in much the same way as they are interested in the physical structure of our environment in space. Goethe seemed to think so, and went so far as to describe architecture as “frozen music”. In the 20th Century, the Greek mathematician, architect and composer Iannis Xenakis actually produced buildings which were precisely that. Or were his pieces “thawed out” architecture? I suppose it depends which way you look at -or listen to- them.