I recently went to a pop/rock concert with my youngest daughter and a good time was had by all. The group was OK Go, one of my daughter’s “formative years” favorites and one of the new-ish bands out there whose contemporary pop-rock hooks can keep my toe tapping. After the concert finished and the crowd spilled out into the street, the two us recounted some of the best moments and then went on to start chatting about our favorite groups from the past.
I waxed on about the Beatles and Billy Joel, of course, being of that generation. But as the ride home went on, it struck me how easy it was for me to remember some “one-hit-wonders” from my teen years as classics. Meanwhile, the music my daughter treasured in her teen years struck me as—well, let’s say “less than classic.” Then, just today, I noticed a column from Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern, in which he explained that there are very good scientific reasons why my daughter and I were both very correct in our assessments.
It turns out that songs from our youth do sound sweeter to our tin ears than some other tunes we listen to later in life. Researchers have discovered that in our early years of music listening (somewhere between the ages of 12 to 22) our brains create these things called “neuronic commands” that permanently link some music to the emotions, relationships and growing-up choices of that time.
When we’re first discovering “our own” music preferences—when we start listening to, singing along with and dancing to those musical gems as teens—we’re activating segments of our brain and letting flow a spicy cocktail of hormones that set up physical and emotional patterns we weren’t even remotely aware of.
All on its own, this neurological and chemical stew would be enough to imprint certain songs into our brains. But there are other things going on at the same time that makes these songs even more potent: We’re getting our first major crush, landing that first kiss, tentatively edging out from under our parent’s protective umbrella. We’re growing up. And those powerful experiences inherently mix with the songs we listened to at the time, making them even more fondly remembered.
Daniel Levitin, the author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, was quoted in the Slate article as saying:
“We are discovering music on our own for the first time when we’re young, often through our friends. 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.”
Which makes perfect sense. And it explains why a silly little ditty from, say, the Bee Gees, might someday feel so much more profound than the lyrics ever looked on paper.
All I can say to that is:
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive.
Think about that for a while.