Article of the Month

Why Are We Obsessed With Music From Our Youth?

Tolu Sangowawa

Hardwired into our memory during a critical time and seeped in glorious nostalgia, the songs we hear as teenagers tend to remain lifelong favourites. From Tame Impala to The Beatles, Gambino to George Michael, Tolu Sangowawa explores why we’re obsessed with music from our youth. 

Ever felt nostalgic about a past generation that you were never actually a part of? Or felt the emotional pain and sorrow of a youthful love story that you never actually lived? Well, same. Whilst there are all sorts of scientific theories and explanations of why we enjoy the music we do, and why we can relate to personal experiences that we never experienced ourselves, the simple answer is that we’re all just suckers for a bit of nostalgia.

The link between music and the sensation of nostalgia is fascinating at best, complex at worse. Having read through just a couple of studies on it myself, the only thing I can say with certainty is that I’m more confused about it than when I started. Does music evoke feelings of nostalgia? Is this connected to our memories that are attached to certain songs? Or does certain music just sound more nostalgic than other music, and therefore spark more nostalgic-inducing chemicals in our brain? The answer to all three of these questions is a resounding yes, and I’ll try my best to explain Why (in the most unqualified and unscientific way, of course).

Evidence shows that our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly

First, though, I will use a bit of scientific research to clarify that musical nostalgia isn’t purely a social or cultural phenomenon: it is in fact a result of a neuronic process. Psychologists and neuroscientists have explained that music from our teenage years will usually hold unique power over our emotions, clouding our brains of the genuine impartial judgment of music from that period. That probably explains why I’m yet to meet a person of an older generation who doesn’t prefer the music of their youth to the current sounds floating around today. Evidence shows that our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything heard as adults, and if anything that connection will only grow with age.

Imagine I spoke to two middle-aged adults, both of whom went through their teenage years in the ’80s. One of them was a big rock fan, and one a big hip-hop fan. Despite having drastically different music tastes, chances are the one thing that the internal music critic in each of them agrees on is that the music from that ’80s period was better than the music of today, or at least their enjoyment of songs like Another One Bites The Dust or F*ck Tha Police far outweighs their enjoyment of songs released today in those respective genres.

If I’m honest, this is a little worrying. I’m lucky enough to still be going through my naïve musical years, and my appreciation for the music I continue to hear and discover hasn’t started declining… yet. It seems that this declination is inevitable, and we will all soon begin to sound like those boring forty-something uncles I see every Christmas who tell me music will never be as good as it was thirty years ago.

So, there’s no doubt that songs from our youth are entangled with the positive memories and experiences we have from that time. The reason why this emotion is so strong and somewhat bittersweet is that these are memories that we will never be able to re-live, and so the music that soundtracked those profound moments of our life is the closest we’ll get to re-living them.

It’s although hearing a song over and over extends the lingering emotional afterglow attached to it

Looking back at old photographs is another tangible method of sparking nostalgic emotions. Though weirdly enough many people tend to prefer listening to the music that played during their school prom instead of looking at a photo, or hearing the song that played during their first kiss, as opposed to a snapshot of the same moment. It’s although hearing a song over and over again extends the lingering emotional afterglow attached to it, despite the memory itself naturally fading away.

Okay, so we’ve answered the first two questions. But, perhaps from a less personal perspective, does certain music just objectively sound more nostalgic than other music? The Beatles are the perfect example: they are the kings of nostalgia. Maybe it’s due to the many other social and cultural factors which put their music on this nostalgic God-like pedestal, but listening to their music manages to evoke nostalgic feelings in me despite having no personal connection to them. I didn’t grow up in the Beatles era, I didn’t even grow up listening to them at all really, and they mean absolutely nothing to me on a personal level.

However, every time I stumble across a clip of their historic final live performance on the rooftop in London (over thirty years before I was born), I swear I can relate to anyone who was actually there. The same goes for when I hear the opening guitar chords of Here Comes The Sun, or the chirping blackbird sound in Blackbird. Yes, their unmatched and longstanding legacy definitely plays a part in the nostalgia, but I think there’s more to it.

Anyway, it’s clear that the intertwinement of music from our teenage years, and in particular our social lives, is a fundamental part of the complex link between nostalgia and music. It’s one of the key reasons why we place so much of our identity in our music collection, and why we’re sometimes maybe too protective over our musical taste buds (*guilty*). American psychologist Daniel Levitin suggested that music from these years is often discovered through friends, and therefore “we listen to the music they listen to as a badge, as a way of belonging to a certain social group. That melds the music to our sense of identity.”

There’s a youthful inner-you that will always adore the first record you ever fell in love with

No matter how much older we get and how much that internal music critic in us becomes more sophisticated, there’s a youthful inner-you that will always adore the first record you ever fell in love with, and it may be difficult to ever replace it. Tame Impala’s The Less I Know The Better and Childish Gambino’s Redbone, maybe even Foreplay by Jalen Santoy, will always take me back to being fifteen. Cherish those songs and the memories attached to them, because they’ll be with you for the rest of your life.

Tolu Sangowawa


Featured image courtesy of Mirta Fratnik via Unsplash. Images granted to Impact by their owners. In-article image courtesy of The Beatles via Facebook. Image use license found here. No changes made to these images.

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