Elizabeth Wagele

The Career Within You

Why Does Music We Heard As Teens Stick?

Learn about teen neurochemical fireworks shows.

Posted Nov 04, 2014

Lusting teen pianos

Drawing from "The Happy Introvert" by E. Wagele

This lasted well into my adulthood, where I would play music I loved until the 33rpm disc wore out. When my kids became too hard on record player needles I changed to CDs. (I wish they sounded as good as 33s.)

Mark Joseph Stern, writing in Slate.com (Neural Nostalgia - Why do we love the music we heard as teenagers?) says the music we first heard as teenagers (for me, Elvis Presley and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, for example) made a greater impact than music we get to know later. I’m not sure about that. As a rabid life-long musicphile, all the music I have fallen in love with has made a huge, never-to-be-forgotten impression on me. It didn’t only happen in my teens.

Stern says we grow more attached to the music we hear as adolescents than at any other time in our life because of our neurons. When we love hearing a song, our brain’s pleasure circuits get activated and the brain releases dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other neurochemicals that make us feel good. Our prefrontal cortex retains the personal memory music evokes. He adds that dancing to music, singing it help it stick.

Stern writes: “The more we like a song, the more we get treated to neurochemical bliss, flooding our brains with some of the same neurotransmitters that cocaine chases after. Music lights these sparks of neural activity in everybody. But in young people, the spark turns into a fireworks show.

“Between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good. When we make neural connections to a song, we also create a strong memory trace that becomes laden with heightened emotion, thanks partly to a surfeit of pubertal growth hormones. These hormones tell our brains that everything is incredibly important—especially the songs that form the soundtrack to our teenage dreams (and embarrassments)…

“Daniel Levitin, the author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, notes that the music of our teenage years is fundamentally intertwined with our social lives. ‘We are discovering music on our own for the first time when we’re young,’ he told me, ‘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.’”

Maybe this is truer for extraverts than for this introvert, whose love for music is predominantly personal and private. But I’m not typical because of my abnormally crazy obsession with music.

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