Why music from our teens stays with us forever

For many of us there are certain songs that have the power to transcend the everyday and instantly transport us back to a certain time or place – sitting in the park on a sunny day, dancing on a night out with your Uni mates, walking down the aisle, running a marathon, your first kiss…

Are you thinking of yours now?

Does it happen to be a song that takes you straight back to your teens or twenties? If so – you’re not alone.

The nostalgia surrounding our favourite songs isn’t just a recollection of old memories; scientific studies show we remember more from our adolescence and early twenties than any other period of our lives.

The music we listen to during this period has greater lasting impact than songs in later life because of a psychological phenomenon called the reminiscence bump.

Our memories define who we are and shape our sense of identity, but they are not evenly distributed throughout our life.

We have fewer memories from birth to about eight-years-old, while at the other end of the scale our minds can easily recall memories that happened most recently, although this does decline with age.

However, researchers have found there is a key age between the ages of 10 to 30-years-old when the reminiscence bump applies, meaning our memories have a particular affinity for recalling events.

The reminiscence bump means songs from our teenage years connect with us through our lives

The power of emotional communication

The reminiscence bump happens for everything – our favourite books, films, sports stars and music, but evidence suggests music features most highly because musical memories are stored in a ‘safe’ area of the brain which is more resilient and protected against age related conditions.

“Music is one of the most fundamental ways that we can express emotions”, says Prof Catherine Loveday, a cognitive neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster.

Prof Loveday has extensively studied the relationship between music and memory.

She spendt the last eight years asking people about their music memories and their preference for music across a lifetime.

She found there is a consistently reliable peak in both memory and preference for music people listened to during their teenage years.

Even when working with people in their eighties she found their strongest musical memories take them back to their youths.

It’s not necessarily when the music was released that is relevant but rather the time frame during which the music was important to an individual.

One theory for why this happens is that our minds undergo an intense and rapid phase of development during our teenage years and early twenties so our budding brains and memory systems are at their peak absorbing as much information about the world as they can.

These are the years when we build our identities

Neural connections

Prof Loveday explained that listening to our favourite music has a fundamental effect on the brain; there’s a surge of activity in the reward pathways that increases the levels of dopamine and oxytocin in our brains - the same pathways that are triggered when we do anything pleasurable such as eating, drinking or dancing.

“There is evidence that structural elements of music get physically tied to our autobiographical memories” she said.

“Musical reminiscence bump is so powerful because we attach music to particularly emotional times.”

The strength of these memories can also be explained by identity theory.

Our teenage years are a time of development socially, biologically and cognitively, and we start to build our own independent sense of identity.

It’s during this period when we start to make key decisions that help shape who we are – who we surround ourselves with, our attitudes to things, what job we want to pursue, what we want to study, where we want to live.

The power of firsts

It’s a lot more powerful when the brains processes exciting, new experiences than boring ones, and during this period of ‘firsts’ we start to build a bank of self-defining memories – first kiss, first car, first time travelling abroad, first time away from home, first time going to a concert.

“Music provides the soundtrack to our lives.” Matt Griffiths CEO of Youth Music, which funds music-making projects for 0-25 year olds, explained.

“It stirs powerful emotions and feelings, recalling vivid memories.

“It defines who we are, creates precious bonds and friendships, makes us feel better.

“Again and again, the evidence we gather at Youth Music demonstrates powerfully the personal and social benefits of music-making, how young people benefit from this and develop their own coping strategies, which they draw on particularly in difficult times.”

Our need for friendship and human interaction is key, “One of the most powerful reasons why people choose a song is because it reminds them of a person,” Prof Loveday said, noting that guests on Desert Island Discs often choose a piece of music for this exact reason.

“We return to key moments in our life over and over again because they reinforce who we are."

So with this in mind, the next time you’re hit with a wall of nostalgia and longing for the good old days of “The Sign" (Ace of Base, 1994), there’s no need to worry.

It’s probably not your questionable music taste, it’s more likely music’s powerful ability to connect us with the people, place and moments that make us who we are.

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