Menus Subscribe Search
beatles-monument

The Enduring Appeal of Memory-Evoking Music

• September 06, 2013 • 4:00 AM

Beatles monument. (PHOTO: MIKHAIL MARKOVSKIY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests that, thanks to the memories it evokes, we particularly love the music of our early adulthood—and our parents’.

Pretty much everyone has a soft spot for particular pop songs from the past, however cheesy they may seem today. These tunes, which trigger positive memories and produce warm feelings, tend to be hits from our adolescence and early adulthood. You never forget what was playing when you enjoyed your first kiss.

But here’s a surprise: We respond with similar pleasure to the much older songs that served as background music to our parents’ first kiss. And possibly their parents’ as well.

Newly published research suggests musical nostalgia is a multigenerational phenomenon. It seems the songs we love aren’t just the ones we discovered, but also the ones our parents enjoyed, and presumably played in the home.

Having grandma bake you a treat while Simon and Garfunkel plays in the background could sear a strong, positive relationship into a young brain.

So if you think ‘80s music is great and ‘90s music is crap, that may simply reflect the year of your birth, and your parents’ birth. (Sixties pop may be its own special case, as we’ll explore shortly.)

In the journal Psychological Science, Cornell University psychologist Carol Lynne Krumhansl and Justin Zupnick of the University of California-Santa Cruz describe a study featuring 62 young adults (average age 20).

Participants listened to a series of 11 music clips, each of which featured the two top songs from each year during a five-year period (starting with 1955-59 and concluding with 2005-09). The recordings ranged from Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock and Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel to Boom Boom Pow by the Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face.

They were asked if they recognized and liked the songs, what emotions the songs evoked, and whether the songs triggered personal memories. If so, they were asked whether the memories involved their parents, peers, or listening alone.

Not surprisingly, the most recent music evoked the strongest responses. However, participants also expressed increased recognition and enjoyment of songs from two earlier periods: The late 1960s and the early 1980s. Oddly, “these participants exhibited something like a ‘reminiscence bump’ for music released in two time periods before they were born,” the researchers write.

“The bump for music popular from 1980 to 1984 might be explained in terms of intergenerational influences,” according to Krumhansl and Zupnick. “Our participants’ parents were born on average in 1960, so 1980 to 1984 was when their parents averaged 20 to 25 years of age.

“According to previous research, this would be the time when their parents’ preferences were established. One assumes, therefore, that this music was played during parents’ child-rearing years, and made an imprint on our listeners when they were children.”

OK, but what about the similar spike in appreciation for songs from the ‘60s? That would be the period when their grandparents came of age, so it’s possible they discovered the songs through them. Having grandma bake you a treat while Simon and Garfunkel plays in the background could sear a strong, positive relationship into a young brain.

“Or it could be just that the quality of the music (in the 1960s) was higher,” Krumhansl and Zupnick add. After all, that is the period that produced what is now known as “classic rock,” and many of the songs remain on radio-station playlists.

Either way, the researchers report that the presence of personal memories associated with specific songs was “closely related to whether they made participants feel happy or energized.” This suggests we’re not responding so much to the music per se, but rather to the events and feelings it triggers in our brains.

So if your musical taste is radically different from someone born a decade earlier or later, this could explain why. The Beatles and Stones aside, the songs we love may depend largely on when we—and our parents—were born.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.