Why Music Makes Us Feel Nostalgic

By Morgan Hughes

“Ribs” by Lorde, “Tongue Tied” by Grouplove or maybe even any song by Vampire Weekend. If any of this music makes you feel heavily nostalgic for a certain time period in your life, you are not alone. Countless studies have been conducted examining the ways music can trigger nostalgia. In 1999, a study found that when a variety of songs from different eras were played for both college students and older adults, more often than not, the songs triggered memories. What was interesting was that these songs often evoked memories of an overall time period.  For example, maybe your entire sophomore year of high school, as opposed to one date you went on. In the study, it was found that more often than not when a subject had a higher emotional attachment to a song, the more likely it was to evoke memories of a specific instance or time in their life. So when you come across a song that you used to listen to all the time with an ex or when your parents broke up, the more likely it is to transport you back to that time when listening to it. 

But why does this happen? On a neuroscientific scale, music interacts with our brains in a lot of different ways. Obviously, with our auditory complexes so that we can process the way that music sounds, and with the language centers of our brain so that we can understand lyrics. But one of the most significant reasons why we feel so nostalgic for certain tunes is music’s interactions with our visual cortex. As soon as we start hearing a song, we start to associate it with images and memories immediately. So the way we feel and the things we see while listening to music can stick with us for a very long time.

Not convinced? Try it! If you’re like me and never delete any music, put your songs on shuffle and wait for an old one to come up that you played during a very particular time in your life. Be it a breakup, beginning of a relationship, moving to college or even starting high school, see if it transports you to the way you felt back then. Although maybe bittersweet — are there songs you can’t listen to that aren’t even sad, but missing the memories attached to it make you melancholic? — it’s kind of cool! Like a melodic time machine.

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