Why do we have a special connection to the music from our youth?

Gemma Powell unpicks the power of music to influence our personal identity which can last a lifetime

Gemma Powell
24th February 2021
Image Credit: Mohammad Metri on Unsplash
Music is often closely linked with our personal identity. In society, we place high value on musical activities as our important memories often become attached with a piece of music relevant to the activity or the time period. We then come to associate this music with the memory for the rest of our lives.

People tend to be particularly nostalgic with music that they listen to as a teen. Is this because music from the past is genuinely better? A lot has already been said about the increasing use of four chords or fewer, or even the same repeated melodies from previous songs, in the modern music scene. Or is it more likely that we associate memories from our youth with the music we grew up with?

Image: Gavin Whitner on Unsplash

Dr Kelly Jakubowski, a researcher from the Department of Music at the University of Durham has published a paper looking at the science of making memories and the significance of music on our youth. 470 participants aged 18 to 82 years were shown the titles and artists of 111 popular songs that had featured in the charts between 1950 and 2015 and were asked to rate the degree to which they were familiar with and liked the song.

The ‘reminiscence bump’ explains why people are disproportionately able to recall memories from when they are 10 to 30 years old

Across the participants on the whole, music that was in the charts during their adolescence was deemed more familiar but was also associated with more personal memories. The ‘reminiscence bump’ was a common phenomenon of the study showing that people are disproportionately able to recall memories from when they were 10 to 30 years old. The peak of the music ‘reminiscence bump’ was 14 years old, with participants recalling more songs and personal memories associated with the songs at this age.

There are a number of explanations for this, including that this period of life contains many more ‘defining’ life experiences, which can be stored in the brain more deeply and retrieved more easily.

In addition, hormonal changes may also increase the effectiveness of memory making and storage during this period of our lives. It could also be related to the fact that the youth have always consumed more media than older generations, whether this be from listening to the radio, vinyl records or digital streaming. At the moment, the average American aged 8 to 18, for example, consumes media for over six hours each day.

Image Credit: Lauren Richmond on Unsplash

Across the whole sample, there was a general preference for songs from the 1970s and 1980s

The study also showed that whilst older adults (aged 40+) preferred music from their youth than current pop songs, younger adults (those under 40) did not always like music from their youth, in some cases giving higher ratings to music that was released before they were born. Thus, songs from our adolescence become entangled with our memories regardless of whether we actually enjoy the music.

Some songs, like the Eagle’s Hotel California, were preferred regardless of a participants age. There was a general preference for songs from the 1970s and 1980s, across the whole sample of participants. Some periods of pop-music are therefore valued across multiple generations.

The study concludes that it would make sense for advertisers, who want to elicit nostalgia in a certain demographic, to use music from the adolescence of their target audience. It would also make sense for clinicians, particularly those of Dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, to use music from the patients youth to allow their memories to resurface.

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  1. Hi Gemma I agree with you on most of your writing, especially about people with dementia ,it really does help with their memories I know an old lady who has dementia ,she can't remember her own sons but can remember all the words to the songs old and new its amazing 😻

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