Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Musical Nostalgia: The Psychology and Neuroscience Behind It

Stern, M. J. (2014, Aug. 12). Neural Nostalgia: Why do we love the music we heard as teenagers? Retrieved from

          This is an article written recently for the “Science” section of Slate.com, an online magazine also featuring stories on current affairs, business, and the arts.  The author (who does not have a background in neuroscience) laments a time when all of his favourite music was abundantly heard on radio and television, and—like almost every other person over 20—expresses his dissatisfaction with the insipid popular songs of today.  He asks: “Why do the songs I heard when I was a teenager sound sweeter than anything I listen to as an adult?” 
          Recent studies have shown that music that catered to our tastes and preferences as adolescents has greater power over our emotions than music we listen to at any other point in our lives.  This is because our auditory system “binds” us to the music we hear as teenagers, a connection that stays with us throughout the remainder of our life.  This means that the cultural phenomenon of nostalgia has clear neurological roots—other music just doesn’t please our ears as much as the sounds heard during the development stages of adolescence.
          It is obvious that listening to music can elicit powerful emotions, mixed feelings, and memories by engaging our auditory, premotor, parietal, and prefrontal cortex.  PET and fMRI brain imaging techniques show that the release of chemicals that make us feel good after music-listening depends largely on our personal preference.  Listening to our favourite music (versus listening to music we are impartial to) releases a greater amount of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.  But how do we come to prefer certain kinds of music over others in the first place?  The most rapid neurological development to our brains happens between the ages of 12 and 22.  When listening to songs at that age that we like, our brains make strong neural connections to it, consequently creating strong memories about the events associated with those songs.  Due to an excessive amount of pubertal growth hormones the memories are also full of heightened emotion, and those songs/events are perceived to be overly important.
          The author also notes that musical preference developed in our teenage years is closely tied with our social lives.  Adolescence is often a time for establishing one’s identity, and music is one way of discovering and expressing it.  This, in combination with a phenomenon where autobiographical memories are disproportionately remembered for events in adolescence and early adulthood called the “reminiscence bump” (Rathbone et al. 2008; Krumhansl & Zupnick 2013), causes music that we are drawn to as teenagers to become a part of our self-image for life. 

It seems like the music that makes us nostalgic, as well as our lifelong enjoyment of it, is literally wired into our brains.  Music can not only provoke feelings of nostalgia, but become nostalgia itself.  Songs can become memories or feelings per se, or lead us down a path of other memories to a notable event in our lives.  Songs, much like smells, can become associated with one particular memory.  In the same way that suddenly smelling something akin to an ex-lover’s perfume, your mother’s apple pie, or your cedar cabin at the summer camp you went to when you were 14, can immediately transport you back to that time in your life, music can also guide (or force) our escape into the past. 
What’s more fascinating is music’s potential to facilitate autobiographical memory.  This does not only apply to people with normal memory recollection (Schulkind et al. 1999), but also for those who have severe acquired brain injuries, or ABIs (Baird & Samson 2014).  These are called “music-evoked autobiographical memories” or MEAMs, and have already been consistently identified in the healthy population.  In Baird & Samson’s recent study (the first study of MEAMs after ABI), MEAMs were compared with verbal-evoked autobiographical memories, and in the majority of cases music was more efficient at evoking autobiographical memories than the verbal prompts (2014).  The results suggest that music is a powerful stimulus for eliciting autobiographical memories, and may be valuable in the rehabilitation of autobiographical amnesia (ibid).
Furthermore, according to the reminiscence bump research (see Rathbone, Moulin, & Conway 2008, for example), these music-evoked autobiographical memories might very well be from our teenage and early adulthood years.  Adolescence is also the first time when we discover music for ourselves, and find out what really suits us.  Jourdain says that music can “suit” us in two different ways: socially and anatomically (1997).  People can often be attracted to certain genres of music because they serve a function in their lives, whether it be for dancing, relaxation, or meeting new people.  Many also fall into certain genres in their youth to conform or belong to a certain group; they listen to what their friends listen to.  Identity and social acceptance, however, have little to do with the actual anatomy of an individual’s inner ear or the neurology of their auditory cortex.  I would go as far as to say that individual variability in these regions is the reason why people initially gravitate to a particular style of music in the first place.  But from there, the preferred musical style is “imprinted” onto our brains, causing our auditory systems to develop toward that genre during the final years of normal musical development (Jourdain 1997, p.263).
To Jourdain it seems that all further branching of musical tastes and preferences are forever in the shadow of the music of our youth.  The neural connections we made with personally-relevant music in adolescence might well dominate all of our further perception of other kinds of music.  This doesn’t mean, however, that people who still enjoy music from their teenage years are musically stunted individuals.  Yes, that music might still evoke a strong emotional reaction decade after decade, but that reaction is generally automatic and involuntary.  And it doesn’t at all thwart the evolution or strength of our musical tastes, because the more we listen—and the more we learn to listen—the wider the variety of music we mature to understand and enjoy.

Baird, A., & Samson, S. (2014). Music evoked autobiographical memory after severe acquired brain injury: Preliminary findings from a case series. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, 24(1), 125-143.

Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the brain, and ecstasy: How music captures our imagination. New York: W. Morrow.

Krumhansl, C., & Zupnick, J. (2013). Cascading reminiscence bumps in popular music. Psychological Science, 24(10), 2057-2068.

Rathbone, C., Moulin, C., & Conway, M. (2008). Self-centered memories: The reminiscence bump and the self. Memory & Cognition, 36(8), 1403-1414.

Schulkind, M., Hennis, L., & Rubin, D. (1999). Music, emotion, and autobiographical memory: They’re playing your song. Memory & Cognition, 27(6), 948-955.


Branden Kelly said...

Hi Stacey,

Thank you very much for posting this. This topic is something I've often wondered about. A lot of the music that is popular today I'm not really into, mainly because I feel that songs are being written today solely to make money. Songs are being dumbed down (ie: repetitive lyrics, catchy melody, chord progressions that never seem to "progress") so that people will like how they sound and buy it. Artists and songwriters are becoming two different professions and that's killing the music in my mind.

Now with that being said, I'm also not really attached to what I listened to as a teenager either, mainly because since I began studying music 6 years ago, my focus from pop/rock has shifted dramatically to classical/jazz/percussion music.

I am wondering if this is the case with everyone else. Does professional music training change the way you listen to music? Has your training in music changed the type of music that you listen to on a daily basis? And my main question: Has it made you connect less with the music you listened to in your adolescent years?

In my case, I would answer yes to all three of these questions. As I learned more about the art that music has to offer through my training, I stopped listening to a lot of the music from my teenage years. One of my favourite take aways from my music degree is that I can now appreciate a good song or a good piece of music when I hear it. When I hear something I appreciate, I connect with it, which allows me to enjoy music like I never have before.

Stacey U. said...

Hey Branden! thank you so much for your comment.

I hope I didn't give the impression that I have an issue with today's popular music. When I wrote, "The author...—-like almost every other person over 20—-expresses his dissatisfaction with the insipid popular songs of today," I was just being facetious! I'm a staunch relativist and subjectivist, and don't believe that there's "good" or "bad" music--different music can serve different functions. And I was just pointing out the general pattern that older people are always dissatisfied with the new music of today, to aid my argument.

But what you said about formal music training is pretty interesting. It definitely teaches individuals how to listen to more complex art music, so perhaps that should be factored in to the musical nostalgia discussion.

Veronica V said...

Thanks for posting this article Stacey. I think it is interesting that our brains make the strongest neural connections to music between the ages of 12-22. Like Branden, I too wonder how performing classical music impacts the way we listen to music. I also wonder if learning music at a young age can influence the type of music we end up listening to in our adolescent years. This article also made me wonder if maybe musicians initially focus on different elements of a piece or song depending on what instrument they play. It would be interesting to see if there are any trends here.

angie said...

Stacey, your article brought me back to my own musical nostalgia! I agree with Stern (2014) in that our senses are absolutely vital in transporting us back into our childhood/adolescence. Our Hippocampus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex leads us into our long-term memories as our amygdala leads us to our nostalgic bliss.
Very interesting article indeed! I never thought why music in my adolescents brought back such wonderful memories, and why I always prefer music from my adolescents.

willimek said...

Why do Minor Chords Sound Sad?

The Theory of Musical Equilibration states that in contrast to previous hypotheses, music does not directly describe emotions: instead, it evokes processes of will which the listener identifies with.

A major chord is something we generally identify with the message, “I want to!” The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, "No more." If someone were to say the words "no more" slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

The Theory of Musical Equilibration applies this principle as it constructs a system which outlines and explains the emotional nature of musical harmonies. For more information you can google Theory of Musical Equilibration.

Bernd Willimek