Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Music-Evoked Nostalgia

Why do certain songs send us back?

I found myself falling through my memories backwards in time after hearing a song from my high school days. A single song made me feel like I was 18 again while reminding me that I'm substantially older. For me, music can induce nostalgia quickly and easily.

Other sensory experiences can induce nostalgia as well. Proust, in the most famous literary example, was sent falling into nostalgia by the taste of a cookie dipped in tea (a petite madeleine, if you are looking to try the famous memory cookie). For others, it may be a smell or a sight that evokes a long-forgotten memory.

But music seems to be a powerful memory cue for many people. Schulkind, Hennis, and Rubin (1999) documented the power of songs to bring to mind previous events and times. They played popular songs from a variety of eras for both college students and older adults. They found that songs frequently evoked memories. Sometimes, as in my case, a song would evoke a general recollection - a memory for a life period such as high school, or college, or dating that certain someone from long ago. Other times, songs brought to mind specific recollections of particular events.

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Schulkind and his colleagues found that the more emotion a song generated for someone, the more likely the song would cue a memory. In addition, older songs more often evoked memories for the older participants whereas recent tunes brought memories to mind more often for the college students.

What I found really interesting is that songs often evoked memories that were general rather than specific - the feeling of high school rather than a specific event; your time with someone rather than a single date. In a word, the songs evoked nostalgia. Of course not every song brought memories to mind. Actually only a minority of songs (but a large minority) evoked memories in Schulkind, Hennis, and Rubin's study. More recently Janata, Tomic, and Rakowski (2007) also reported that songs frequently evoked memories and they reported that one of the most common emotional responses named, even by college students, was nostalgia.

So the question is why do some songs evoke memories and feelings of nostalgia while others do not?

I suspect Proust and his cookie-evoked memory may hold the key. Proust noted that he had seen madeleine cookies many times since his childhood - apparently these are a common sight in French bakeries and pastry shops. But Proust had not tasted a madeleine dipped in tea since he was a small child. To evoke memories, sensations need precise connections. Proust stated that he had not eaten the cookies, particularly not dipped in tea, since his aunt had shared madeleines with him years earlier. Thus the sensation matched the original and crucially had not been diluted by other experiences since. The taste of the tea-dipped cookie brought to mind memories of his aunt, their time together, and that entire epoch in his life. A set of events were waiting in memory, waiting for the perfect cue or reminder - a cookie.

For me, and maybe for you, a song worked the same miracle of memory. I heard a song I had not heard in years. The song evoked a sense of nostalgia for my lost adolescence. For me the song was 30 years old, but for my students an N*Sync song from the late 90s can bring feelings of middle school nostalgia (apparently some of my students have fond memories of middle school).

The risk and the joy of listening to oldies is that memories may surface. A cookie, a song, a sight, a smell, almost any sensation can lead to memories and nostalgia. The effect may prove most profound when there are few encounters with the sensation between that long ago period and the present.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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