This story is over 5 years old.


The Science Behind Music’s Nostalgic Power

There's a neurological reason why some songs transport us right back to being an emo teenager.
Illustration by Ben Thomson

This article is supported by Spotify, because life (like a good throwback) is better with music.

No matter how “cool” and “sophisticated” your tastes have become in the years since high school, the opening guitar riff of a pop punk song probably still has the power to automatically transport you back in time. Suddenly you’re wondering what your Year 10 crush has been up to lately, and whether guyliner and side fringes will ever make a comeback. Don’t be ashamed: Blink 182 will have that effect on anyone.


This is because music makes human beings incredibly nostalgic. Neuroimaging has shown that songs stimulate many different areas of the brain, and give us a big hit of dopamine while they’re at it. Furthermore, hearing the same songs over and over—especially during particularly memorable events or formative periods in our lives—can make them stick, sometimes for life. We’re very good at recognising music that we’ve heard before, and associating it with certain memories. Scientists have even found that babies can do it from birth.

Perhaps most crucially, listening to music lights up the brain’s visual cortex. Which means that as you hear a song, you’ll start associating it with memories or other images almost immediately. You know, some Seth Cohen-approved song from The OC soundtrack comes on at a party and suddenly you’re thinking about making mix CDs for your crush. A landmark 1999 study showed that music has enormous power to evoke memories in the listener. Music can provoke general recollections, for example the feeling of what it was like to be a child, or a uni student. And some songs will prompt nostalgia over more specific scenarios: important life events, like your first kiss or that particularly wild house party your best friend threw to celebrate the end of school exams. University of Melbourne neuropsychologist Amee Baird has even found that couples with a “special song” that signifies an important moment in their relationship will strengthen their bond—and possibly even alleviate the effects of dementia—by listening to it together and reminiscing.


When it comes to the relationship between nostalgia and music, something researchers know for sure is that the music we listened to as teenagers will continue to be incredibly influential on us for the rest of our lives. And there are neurological explanations for this. Your brain develops during these years, and so it stands to reason that the music you listened to as a teenager becomes quite literally formative. In a 2008 study from the University of Leeds, memory researchers asserted that not all our memories are created equal: the ones we reserve from our formative teenage years, as well as those from our early twenties, are the ones we return to and cherish the most. They call this period the “reminiscence bump”, when human beings retain more memories than they will during any other life phases.

And that makes sense, right? The records you listen to while you’re figuring out your personality will tend to stick. And the pure circumstances of being a teenager mean you’ll be listening to more music than you ever will again—at parties, while doing your homework, while enduring your first ever heartbreak, while swapping playlists with your friends, and forming extremely embarrassing garage bands.

The statistics don’t lie. Earlier this year, economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz used Spotify listening data to ascertain that decades-old songs are most popular among a listener group that was in their early teens when said songs were released. Radiohead’s “Creep”, for example, is most listened to by men who were aged around 14 when they first heard it. On average, Stephens-Davidowitz found men’s favourite songs were released when they were aged between 13 and 16. Women’s favourite songs were solidified when they were slightly younger, between the ages of 11 and 14.

So to go back to the Blink-182 metric: if you’re currently in your early twenties, you’re likely to get nostalgic about their later work—2003’s noticeably-more-emo self-titled LP Blink-182, for example. If you’re any older than that, it’s Enema of the State that’s more likely to make you yearn for a simpler and more skatepark-centric time.

Feel like taking a trip down memory lane? We have the mixtape for you.

This article is supported by Spotify.