Here’s a line I quote a lot: “Every generation has the biological right to believe that the music of its youth is the greatest music ever made.” If I could remember where I read that, I’d certainly give that person credit because it is so right on.
We all have a musical sweet spot, those coming-of-age-musically years, which usually fall between your first year of high school and the time when you get out of university (or reach your mid-20s if you don’t go to college). When we’re young, we have all kinds of time and energy to devote to musical pursuits. We also use music as a way to self-identify to the rest of the world. By proclaiming your favourite type of music, you’re proclaiming your individuality and/or your chosen tribal affiliation to society.
But by the time we reach our mid-20s, life begins into intrude. Jobs. Families. Bills. Mortgages. You know, life. There just isn’t as much time for musical pursuits anymore. The idea of staying up until 1:15am on a Tuesday to see that cool new band just isn’t appealing anymore. And with so much music out there and less time available—well, you see the problem.
This is when we began to default back to the music we loved during a simpler time: the music of our youth. It becomes this auditory sanctuary. I, for example, always find myself listening to Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model when I have a particularly bad day. It just makes me feel better.
Don’t feel weird if this happens to you because it happens to almost everyone. It’s a completely natural process. You might even find yourself saying things like “Music was so much better when I was growing up.” Uh-huh.
Slate goes deeper into this phenomenon.
In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have confirmed that these songs hold disproportionate power over our emotions. And researchers have uncovered evidence that suggests our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we’ll hear as adults—a connection that doesn’t weaken as we age. Musical nostalgia, in other words, isn’t just a cultural phenomenon: It’s a neuronic command. And no matter how sophisticated our tastes might otherwise grow to be, our brains may stay jammed on those songs we obsessed over during the high drama of adolescence.
To understand why we grow attached to certain songs, it helps to start with the brain’s relationship with music in general. When we first hear a song, it stimulates our auditory cortex and we convert the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies into a coherent whole. From there, our reaction to music depends on how we interact with it. Sing along to a song in your head, and you’ll activate your premotor cortex, which helps plan and coordinate movements. Dance along, and your neurons will synchronize with the beat of the music. Pay close attention to the lyrics and instrumentation, and you’ll activate your parietal cortex, which helps you shift and maintain attention to different stimuli. Listen to a song that triggers personal memories, and your prefrontal cortex, which maintains information relevant to your personal life and relationships, will spring into action