The Science and Psychology of Music Nostalgia

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Everyone has the experience of hearing a favorite song for the first time in ages and immediately being transported back to an earlier time. It transpires that the nostalgia we feel for the music of years gone by isn’t just in our hearts, it’s actually hard-wired into our brains.

Music can unlock memories

In 1999, psychologists Schulkind, Hennis and Rubin conducted a series of experiments in which they played both old and new popular songs for college students and older adults. In some cases, the songs evoked general recollections and for other participants, the songs brought to mind very specific memories of particular events.

Music affects the way we recall memories because many of the most significant events in our lives, especially ones we are experiencing for the first time such as a first kiss at a school dance, occur to some kind of musical backing track so when we hear those songs again, even years later, we will sometimes relive those moments vividly.

The role of brain chemistry

Studies have shown that when we hear songs we love, an influx of neurochemicals including serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine are released into our brains, making us feel good. Every time you are exposed to music you like, your brain will respond in this way, but between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo a period of especially rapid neurological development so the music we tune into most during this time in our lives becomes far more deeply embedded, creating powerful memories that work in tandem with a range of emotional responses.

This also means that if you exposed to music from earlier eras during those same formative years, the effect will be far more powerful than it would have been if you experienced it as an adult. If your parents played their choice of music around the house while you were growing up, you may have felt their tastes were terrible. Hearing that music years later, you may not feel any more affection for it, but it will certainly evoke strong memories.

The digital divide

The rise of digital music, internet radio and on-demand streaming services, along with the growth of social media means that the way we listen to songs has changed. A sense that something has been lost along the road to digitalization is just one of the reasons why sales of vinyl records are on the rise. The growing movement to embrace all things vintage means that as well as buying albums in their original format, you can also share your appreciation of your favorite artists from days gone by through your choice of clothing. Simply slip on a Jimi Hendrix T-Shirt and you can remind the world of his extraordinary talent everywhere you go.

Many observers believe the changes in the way we listen to music has compressed the gap between hearing a song and feeling nostalgic about it. Whereas previous generations became nostalgic about their teenage years in their 40s or 50s, people are now experiencing those same feelings in their late 20s and early 30s.

Although the connections you make with the music of your youth will always be the most powerful, you still continue to make connections as an adult so even if you are hearing 60s psychedelic rock for the very first time, you can look forward to feeling nostalgic about it in years to come.

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