Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Robin Marantz Henig
Robin Marantz Henig
Child Development

Nostalgia for a Time You Didn't Know

Young adults resonate to the music of their youth—and of their parents' youth.

In our book Twentysomething (coming out in paperback next month!) my daughter Samantha and I wrote about the "reminiscence bump" -- the observation that when people in their fifties or sixties look back on their lives, the moments they remember most vividly seem to have occurred in their twenties.

Now research suggests that this is the case for music, too, but with a twist. The music that was popular in your youth seems to be the music you recall most vividly -- and most nostalgically -- for the rest of your life. But so is the music that was popular in your parents' youth. In other words, you're nostalgic for music that was being played before you were born -- nostalgic for a time you didn't even live through.

The investigators, who published results of their study last month in an article in the journal Psychological Sciences, call it the "cascading reminiscence bump." As lead researcher Carol Lynne Krumhansl of Cornell put it in a press release, “Music transmitted from generation to generation shapes autobiographical memories, preferences, and emotional responses."

In the cascading reminiscence bump, you not only resonate to music from your own youth -- the music that was playing when you went to your first dance, had your first kiss, got all moony about rock groups and pop poetry -- but also to the music from your parents' youth. That was the music of your childhood, playing in the house and on the car CD player because it was the music your parents (the ones in charge at the time) liked best.

In the study, Krumhansl and her colleague, Justin Zupnick of the University of California, Santa Cruz, asked 62 college-age participants to listen to songs that were popular over a range of dates. Study subjects listened to two top Billboard hits per year from 1955 to 2009. They then had to say which songs conjured up the strongest emotions, in particular happiness, sadness, nostalgia, or feeling energized. They were also asked whether they remembered listening to the songs on their own, with their friends, or with their parents.

In terms of personal memories, these college-aged young adults reported the strongest feelings about the songs that were popular in the present day, when they are in their twenties. (It's hard to draw many conclusions about "reminiscence bumps" from this observation, since the subjects are still so young.) But a second blip of powerful feelings was tied to songs that were popular in the early 1980s, when their parents were approximately 20-25 years old. Those songs ranked surprisingly high on recognition, perceived quality, and emotional connection for these young people.

Krumhansl and Zupnick theorized that the reason for this bump is that music from the early 1980s was the music of the subjects' childhood, which evoked nostalgia in a way that music of their own youth did not.

There was also a smaller reminiscence bump for music of the 1960s -- but, as a Baby Boomer myself, I suspect that was just because that music was THE BEST EVER.

I think Samantha and her sister might agree that some of the music they're still most fond of, in their late twenties and early thirties, is the music we all listened to together in the car or in the living room -- James Taylor, Phil Ochs, Randy Newman, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Paul Simon. These weren't the Top Ten songs of their own youth, but the Top Tens of their father's and mine. I got a kick back then out of sharing those songs with them when they were little -- and I get a kick still, on long road trips, to see that these songs are still on their iTunes music libraries.

The researchers have taken their study to the web, in which they ask participants to take an online survey of music from a wider range of dates. They're hoping to get older adults to participate this time around. As Krumhansl said in the press release, “It will be fascinating to see if we can trace intergenerational influences back through more generations, better understand the ‘sixties’ bump,’ and look for effects of the vast changes in music technology that have occurred over the last century.”

About the Author
Robin Marantz Henig

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and the co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

More from Robin Marantz Henig
More from Psychology Today
More from Robin Marantz Henig
More from Psychology Today