477: Music Nostalgia

What music did you grow up with?

Full episode script

There’s nothing quite like the music we grew up with, right? The songs that create the soundtrack of our firsts, those moments when we were developing our consistent sense of self and having so many of those experiences that become instrumental in the people that we become.

It makes sense, right? Music can engage so many different parts of our brain, from prefrontal cortex to auditory cortex to parietal cortex. There’s even an entire branch of science — the cognitive neuroscience of music — that studies the many and varied impacts that music can have on us. The book This is Your Brain on Music is a truly fascinating read that combines just about every neurological and psychological field of study with music theory, and makes the argument that certain music can and will always have an impact on us.

In fact, there’s an entire field of study dedicated only to how the music we grew up with impacts us. Called musical nostalgia, it’s an entire field that asks why we like the music we grew up with in a different way than we like other music as we grow up. As Mark Stern put it in Slate:

“Music lights these sparks of neural activity in everybody. But in young people, the spark turns into a fireworks show. Between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good. When we make neural connections to a song, we also create a strong memory trace that becomes laden with heightened emotion, thanks partly to a surfeit of pubertal growth hormones. These hormones tell our brains that everything is incredibly important”

But… maybe, just maybe, it’s not so hard-wired. As Jonathan Bliss writes for NPR about classical musical nostalgia:

“This ache for the past becomes absolutely critical in the 20th century, but it does not begin there: Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, and Johannes Brahms didn’t share much, but they were all haunted by the specter of Beethoven. Each in his own way was preoccupied with the problem of composing in a style and harmonic language that was already halfway to being dismantled. For Brahms, the solution was to meticulously, even fanatically, study the old style. For Wolf it was to try to ignore it completely, and for Mahler, it was a more complex mix of adulation and rejection.

But go back far enough, and this backward glance — this musical rückblick — goes away. In the latter half of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, musical culture was rooted in the present.”

But wherever your musical memory is rooted, it likely still is something you remember – and remember well.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.