Petr Janata, PhDPetr Janata, PhD, a professor who studies the psychology of music at the Center for Mind and Brain at University of California, Davis.
It’s common for people to maintain a fondness for the music of their youth. But why? You don’t read the same books you did as a teen…or watch the same TV shows…or wear the same clothes. Why do early musical preferences linger?
The music of our youth becomes intertwined in our minds with memories of key events that occurred during those formative years. We experience many emotionally important moments during our teen years—we go on first dates, form lasting friendships and discover clues about who we truly are. If music was playing when we had these emotion-laden experiences—and there’s a good chance it was, because teens listen to lots of music—it could become linked in our minds to the pivotal personal memories. And because the teenage brain still is developing, the music we listen to during this phase of life might get wired into us in a way that music we hear later does not. A 2012 study showed that retirement-age adults were better able to recall autobiographical memories when those memories were “music evoked.” And it turns out that the regions of the brain where long-known music is stored remain in relatively good condition as we age—even among people who develop neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Also, the music of our youth offers a benefit that other music cannot—a sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia often is viewed as a negative. But actually, it is a positive emotion and a valuable one.
Recent research has found that experiencing nostalgia boosts our sense that our life has meaning…makes us more optimistic about the future…and fosters a stronger sense of connections to other people. So when we’re feeling lonely, hopeless or wondering about what it all means, perhaps we should leave the self-help books on the shelf and break out our old albums instead.