Nostalgia in Music - the science behind it

Written by Samia Kabir Nostalgia is powerful. The impermanence of all things is encapsulated by our memories. Memories are the only things we hold onto, while everything else is fleeting. Sometimes nostalgia infects us with happiness, and other times it is a stab in the chest. Regardless, there is no better way to experience nostalgia than through music.

Often I am reminded of the happy moments with friends-- biking along the river under a boiling, angry sun, or walking home after-school during the cold winter days, when from the warmest lungs came the coldest clouds of breaths. Other times we watched the sun vanish into the glimmering water, or ran down an empty road, feeling the night breeze cooling our skins.

Every single one of these moments had one thing in common—there was music in the background.


Listening to a playlist that was made two years ago is a trip down memory lane, sweetly reminiscent of a time before a global pandemic. The familiar melodies hold my hand and guide me backward. Suddenly It’s summer 2019 and I’m back there once again. It’s a beautiful and chaotic road of ups and downs-- too many highs and just as many lows.


So how are music and memories so connected? Do songs sound better if memories are made to them?


I have tried to introduce my parents to the music I listen to, and each time they have the same reaction. This is not my kind of music-- it’s too loud, there’s too many drums.

Surely, our ears are trained to like what we have heard the most. However, it goes beyond that. Music is able to illustrate parts of our lives. Each song is a reminder of a strand on their timelines, so it is just as much nostalgia as anything else. Perhaps it allows them to relive their teenage years or maybe it’s a reminder of how beautiful life has been, and how things have changed.


Science explains this using brain mapping-- It’s understood that hearing music is closely related with strong emotional feelings and activates the entire limbic system. This is involved in processing of emotions and in controlling memory.


A 2009 study done by a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California found that songs linked to strong emotions and memories showed greater activity in the upper part of the medial prefrontal cortex, which is also responsible for supporting and retrieving long-term memories.


Music therapy is used to benefit Alzheimer’s patients, as well as patients with other forms of dementia. This is done by showing them music that they remember, provoking strong emotional responses, and in turn, helping them retrieve memories.


This pandemic has been one of the loneliest times that many teenagers have ever had to experience in their lifetime. For many, music has been one of the only outlets through experiencing their lives before social distancing. We listen to the music from a year ago and imagine returning to that same place in our lives—it’s therapeutic.


It’s incredibly important to make memories to songs. Explore and find music that makes you feel alive. Perhaps in the future, it will remind you of the time you lived through history, or of the things you learned about yourself by spending so much time alone. You will remember it as a period filled with patience and perseverance. The songs you pick now will eventually be part of the playlist of your life.




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