People tend to be extremely nostalgic about the music they listened to when they were young. If you were a teenager in the 1970s, chances are you will love Queen, Stevie Wonder or ABBA. And if you were young in the 1990s, Wannabe by the Spice Girls probably still gets you on the dance floor.
But why is that? Do we genuinely think music from the past is better, or has it got something to do with the memories we have of that time?
Our recent study, published in Music and Science, has come up with an intriguing answer.
Music is closely linked with memory and emotion. There’s a reason for the popularity of the long-running BBC radio programme, Desert Island Discs, in which celebrity guests share the soundtrack of their lives. Or why the recent video of a retired ballerina with Alzheimer’s disease being spontaneously brought back to her past through music went viral.
Music seems to be particularly associated with positive emotional memories with social themes, making it relevant for helping to improve life satisfaction during the pandemic.
General psychological research has shown that autobiographical memories (life experiences) from certain time periods are remembered better than others. One particularly notable phenomenon is the “reminiscence bump”: the fact that people tend to disproportionately recall memories from when they were 10 to 30 years old.
Several theoretical explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, including that this lifetime period contains many novel and self-defining experiences — which may be encoded in the brain more deeply and retrieved more easily. Biological and hormonal changes may also boost the effectiveness of our memories during this period.
It has been shown that when people are asked to choose their favourite record it is likely to come from the reminiscence bump period, and that older adults know more about music from their youth than current pop songs. But does that mean that music from this period is more likely to be connected to autobiographical memories?