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Why the Songs of Our Youth Trigger Such Intense Reminiscence

“Musical reminiscence bumps” peak around age 14 and create lifelong memories.

Source: Bru-nO/Pixabay

New research into "music-related memories in adulthood" and "reminiscence bumps" sheds light on why some songs we absorb during our teenage years become deeply embedded in our memory banks and have incredible lasting power.

Compared to the music we encounter later in life, songs from one's adolescence tend to trigger a disproportionate amount of nostalgia, according to the latest "reminiscence bump" research. This cross-sectional study (Jakubowski et al., 2020) was recently published in the open-access journal Music & Science.

Jakubowski's latest study into music-related autobiographical memories across a lifespan expands on previous "reminiscence bump" research (Rubin et al., 1986), which posits that older adults (over the age of 40) tend to reminisce frequently about their younger days. As we approach midlife, reminiscence bump theory suggests that middle-aged people recall a disproportionate number of nostalgic memories from adolescence and young adulthood. In general, our teenage years are especially ripe for robust reminiscence bumps.

On February 11, the study's lead author, Kelly Jakubowski of Durham University, published an article in The Conversation that explains why adults are often obsessed with music from our youth. "Several theoretical explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, including that this lifetime period contains many novel and self-defining experiences—which may be encoded in the brain more deeply and retrieved more easily," Jakubowski explains. "Biological and hormonal changes may also boost the effectiveness of our memories during this period."

"General psychological research has shown that autobiographical memories (life experiences) from certain time periods are remembered better than others," she adds. "One particularly notable phenomenon is the 'reminiscence bump': the fact that people tend to disproportionately recall memories from when they were 10 to 30 years old."

For their recent study, Jakubowski et al. investigated how 470 adults between 18 and 82 responded to over one hundred different pop songs that topped the music charts over a 65-year time span (from 1950 thru 2015).

In their online survey, the researchers were specifically looking for the presence of "musical reminiscence bumps" in relation to someone's age when a song was popular, gauging how much a respondent liked the song, if the hit single was familiar (even if it was on the pop charts years before a surveyee was born), and assessing which songs were most vividly associated with music-related autobiographical memories.

 Jakubowski et al., 2020/Music & Science (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Actual and fitted gamma distributions of music-related memories. The y-axis shows the distribution probabilities from the actual data and the fitted distributions adjusted to the same scale.
Source: Jakubowski et al., 2020/Music & Science (CC BY-NC 4.0)

On average, the researchers found that chart-topping songs that were smash hits during one's adolescence got the highest ratings for both familiarity and were also associated with the most vivid autobiographical memories. "This music-related reminiscence bump peaked around age 14: Songs popular when participants were this age evoked the most memories overall," Jakubowski said.

Interestingly, some of the younger study participants liked 20th-century songs from their parents' generation that were released before they were born more than hit songs from their adolescence in the 2000s. "Some songs were preferred regardless of a participant's age or when they were on the charts," Jakubowski noted. "Some songs may be able to transcend generational boundaries."

"[Our results] show evidence of some intergenerational shared preferences, with the three youngest groups all giving their highest liking ratings for music from the late 1970s to early 1980s," the authors write. "We saw a general increase in how much people liked songs from the late 1970s to early 1980s, even in participants who weren't yet born during that time period," Jakubowski added.

"In addition to the expected increase in personal memories associated with recently released pop music, these young adult participants also reported a greater number of personal memories for music released during their parents' reminiscence bump period (around 1980 to 1984)," the authors explain. This phenomenon is referred to as a "cascading reminiscence bump" (Krumhansl & Zupnick, 2013). The youngest group in the Jakubowski et al. study (2020) "showed evidence of a cascading reminiscence bump for music released up to two decades before they were born."

Notably, Jakuboski et al.'s musical reminiscence bumps and music-related memories research suggests that songs from certain time periods (e.g., the late '70s and early '80s) tend to be valued intergenerationally; according to the researchers, this includes timeless classics like "Hotel California" by the Eagles, "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor, and "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson.

"[It] seems that we aren't primarily so interested in the music of our youth because we think it's better than music from other eras, but because it is closely linked to our personal memories," Jakubowski concludes.

What Songs Would You Put on Cascading Reminiscence Bump "Awesome Mix Vol. 3" Mixtape?

Hollywood Records/Marvel Music/Disney Music Group/Fair use
Cover art for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Source: Hollywood Records/Marvel Music/Disney Music Group/Fair use

Music-related memories on "Awesome Mix" playlists drive the Guardians of the Galaxy storyline. In the Marvel Comics superhero universe, the lead protagonist (Peter Quill/Star-Lord) draws comfort and inspiration from mixtapes of his mother's favorite songs from the 1970s that she gave to him just before she died. Through the lens of the latest reminiscence bump research, the intergenerational songs on Guardians of the Galaxy "Awesome Mix" (Vol. 1 and 2) cassettes exemplify cascading reminiscence bumps.

If you were to make an "Awesome" mixtape for posterity, what songs from your reminiscence bump period hold the most vivid and self-defining memories from your adolescence? To jog your memory, check out this list of Billboard number-one singles from the Hot 100 era listed by year and click on the year you turned 14.

For me, this was 1980, and the songlist includes "Another One Bites the Dust," "Upside Down," "Funkytown," "Another Brick in the Wall," "Call Me," and "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)." As expected, listening to these songs again for the first time in eons opened a floodgate of music-related memories from four decades ago that are more robust compared to music-inspired recollections from other lifetime periods.

Anecdotally, hearing some pop songs from the peak of my "reminiscence bump period" corroborates the latest (2020) findings by Jakubowski et al. Do the singles on Billboard's year-end charts from when you were 14 have the same effect?

Image by Jakubowski et al., 2020 from open-access Science & Music paper (CC BY-NC 4.0)


Kelly Jakubowski, Tuomas Eerola, Barbara Tillmann, Fabien Perrin, Lizette Heine. "A Cross-Sectional Study of Reminiscence Bumps for Music-Related Memories in Adulthood." Music & Science (First published online: October 23, 2020) DOI: 10.1177/2059204320965058

Carol Lynne Krumhansl and Justin Adam Zupnick. "Cascading Reminiscence Bumps in Popular Music." Psychological Science (First published: September 04, 2013) DOI: 10.1177/0956797613486486

David C. Rubin, Tamara A. Rahhal & Leonard W. Poon. "Things Learned in Early Adulthood Are Remembered Best." Memory & Cognition (First published: January 1998) DOI: 10.3758/BF03211366

David C. Rubin. "Autobiographical Memory Across a Lifespan." Autobiographical Memory (First publication: 1986. Online publication: March 2011) DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511558313.018

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