Ever Wondered Why Music Is So Nostalgic? Here’s the Science Behind It
The word “nostalgia” was coined in 1968 by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer.
Initially attributed to soldiers becoming sick while fighting in foreign lands, Hofer observed the debilitating condition and combined the Greek words “nostos” (homecoming) and “algos” (sorrow) to describe his findings.
It wasn’t just sadness, lethargy, “frequent sighs'” and “disturbed sleep” that the downtrodden men suffered from. Hofer reported lesions, heart palpitations, and a “stupidity of the mind”, which presented in a similar manner to dementia.
The only “cure” was for them to return home, but they would have been branded deserters and punished by death. After refusing to eat, some of the soldiers wasted away and died.
Back then, people’s minds were cast back by the simple sound of cowbells rattling in the distance, or by the smell of their favourite childhood meal escaping from someone’s kitchen window.
Nowadays, the meaning of the word is a little different and there are entire businesses and industries that know how to cast an array of nostalgic spells to draw in a potential customer.
When used correctly, and in moderation, nostalgia can be used to mend a broken heart, enhance a reunion with your old college friends, or give someone the confidence to overcome an obstacle.
Today, the most commonly-used (and successful) means of delivering nostalgia to someone are television, film and of course, music.
WHAT IS NOSTALGIA IN RELATION TO MUSIC?
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Although not exactly the same as Hofer’s original medical meaning of nostalgia, musical nostalgia can cast your consciousness back to your childhood and make you homesick.
However, there’s a lot more to it than that. As well as yearning for a return to life as a child with no responsibilities, nostalgia in music can fill you with so many more different emotions.
Despite being depicted solely as a negative issue in its early days, it is now openly accepted that feelings of nostalgia can also include positive emotions. Nostalgia in music is an all-encompassing term used when someone thinks back to another time in their life – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
While childhood and hometown memories are still the backbone of the genre, nostalgic music manages to evoke recollections of days in later life too, such as attending university and having your first child.
On top of that, instead of craving to return to where you started off in the world, a certain tune may remind you of that amazing vacation you took years ago, causing you to start planning a return trip that you can share with someone else.
On the other side of the coin, however, a piece of music used at a funeral, or even a song that makes you remember someone that passed long ago, could nudge your mind into settling in somewhere dark for a while.
So, take care not to become over-indulgent or mawkish, and remember that it’s good to live in the present too.
WHY DO CERTAIN SONGS SEND US BACK IN TIME?
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Music can be nostalgic for various reasons. Many of the songs listed below were simply playing on the radio at a time when people were growing up or experiencing life events when they were released.
However, sometimes music is made with an intentional attempt to throw your attention back to another time and/or place.
While the song’s lyrics are often what herds us happily down memory lane, they don’t necessarily have to be.
The use of certain instruments could remind someone of the nights they spent in a smoky jazz club with their grandpa, or an audio sample taken from an old television show might be the thing that catches your ear and causes you to stare off into the distance for an hour.
When a song taps into our brain and stirs up some nostalgic emotion, it often triggers memories we have of childhood, happiness, friendship, being a teenager, self-discovery, love, college, homesickness, regret and forgiveness, to name a few.
With the unlimited potential for hooking people in with warm and fuzzy nostalgic feelings, there’s no surprise that books, films, television, video games and music exploit the human weakness to procrastinate over the “good ol’ days”.
Both the television and movie industries have made lucrative use of this knowledge for decades, as they’ve frequently made perfect use of songs to capture a visual time bubble on film.
WHAT’S THE SCIENCE BEHIND MUSICAL NOSTALGIA?
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Thanks to neuroimaging, we know that music doesn’t have a single/central receiver and that listening to it actually stimulates various parts of the brain.
In the simplest of cases, sound is processed through the auditory cortex, the left frontal cortex, the left parietal cortex and the right cerebellum.
Other parts of the cerebral cortex and cerebellum are brought in for more unusual rhythms at times, and there are even more complicated areas of the brain that are affected by music. Additionally, dopamine is released when listening to songs, which explains how some people get “lost in the music” so easily.
While in our youth, we don’t have much of a mental library of music and we have a habit of listening to the same songs over and again.
We can do this into adulthood and beyond too, but when we’re still forming and growing into the world, life-changing and memorable events attach themselves to certain tracks.
When listening to music, the brain’s visual cortex lights up. This causes us to associate the sound with visual and other memories almost instantly. These “sensory snapshots” become memories and remain with us for the rest of our lives.
Again, we can still create these connections when older, but the ones made before the brain finishes developing (at 25) are likely to be the most deep-rooted and powerful. This is called the “reminiscence bump”.
Our brains are amazing at recognising music we’ve heard before. Not only will our minds recall the sound stored in our memory, but it will also conjure the other sensory memories that have been attached to it.
This is why you’ll hear a song from your college days and be able to taste your old housemate’s cooking, or why you might smell leather car seats when hearing something from your dad’s favourite driving cassette.
Oh yeah, did we mention the dopamine hit too?
People can go overboard and drown themselves in nostalgia, never paying attention to the here and now.
Fortunately, there have been studies to discover nostalgia in music can also be beneficial, and not just a way to make the responsibility-filled days of an adult fly by.
University of Melbourne neuropsychologist Amee Baird discovered that couples who have a “special song” that connects them to an important time of their relationship will have a stronger bond.
Evidence has also been seen that nostalgic music can help alleviate the effects of dementia, sometimes returning memory-loss sufferers to their former selves.
With all the different parts of the brain that it wakes up and interacts with, musical nostalgia might turn out to be the defibrillator of the mind.
50 BEST NOSTALGIC SONGS OF ALL TIME
Due to the vast number of individuals on the planet, it would be tough to compile a list of “all of” or “the best” nostalgic songs in existence.
So, here are 50 nostalgic tracks that are sure to stir up emotions in most people.
Did we miss your favourite? Tell us about it below in the comments!
HOW DOES NOSTALGIA INSPIRE ARTISTES AND AFFECT FUTURE SOUNDS?
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Artistes are often complex creatures. Their motivation to create can come from an array of sources both negative and positive. These range from unsupportive parents that the artiste is trying to prove wrong, to the feeling of liberation from living in a free country.
The drive could also come from making something productive out of a traumatic childhood event, or it could just be someone gloating about all the money, cars and houses they own.
The same can be said for any nostalgia that artistes draw influence from or try to recreate.
Depending on the lyrics, the sound and what/when/who it reminds the listener of, it could be happy or sad nostalgia. Every artiste walked a different path before making music, some will have certainly embraced the power of nostalgia to help them write their material.
This could be to get them “in the zone” of productivity.
Like a musical time capsule lottery, any song that makes it to enough ears could become a nostalgic hit of the future, even if that was never the intention and the creator just wanted to tell the story of an interesting day they had.
HOW TO MAKE NOSTALGIC MUSIC
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Like with all types of art, there isn’t a singular, pre-approved method of making nostalgic music, but there are a few guidelines and common themes that will help.
Before you make any noise, you’ll probably want to decide on a subject for your nostalgic song. It could cover memories of childhood, school, innocence, love, remembrance, happiness, freedom, regret and of course, homesickness.
Although you could try and “guess” how to get other people on the hook of nostalgia by manufacturing a narrative aimed at a broader audience, you risk missing the target and making something that doesn’t connect with anyone.
Tell your story and harness your own memories and emotions. In time, people will hopefully notice and relate to the experience, even if it’s not exactly the same.
In the past, artistes have used samples of music/sounds from a certain location and/or point in time. This could be a recognisable soundbite from a television show’s dialogue or its theme song, or it could be a news report from a specific event.
Many musicians sneak nostalgia into their music by slipping in part of a famous riff/song/genre from days gone by.
Often, it’s to wash the listener with a wave of memories and feelings, but it could also ensure nobody forgets where the artiste (musically) came from. Others aren’t as tactful as that and have made careers sampling/remixing old songs and sounds 100% of the time.
Specific instruments could also be used if they were popular in a region and they no longer are, or if you are no longer there and the sound of them instantly takes you back. Bagpipes in Scotland, or sitars in India, for example.
Childhood instruments like recorders, tambourines and xylophones could be employed if you’re really trying to throw someone’s mind back down memory lane. The musical scales used for nursery rhymes and children’s songs are so simple that we can recognise them with ease even if it’s been decades since we last heard them.
You could also make use of melodic sounds like playground songs and chants, as well as noises heard in and around the school.
For more music and nostalgia:
- Emotions From Music: The Connection Between Sound and Feelings
- For Better Mental Health, Make A Trip To Your Nearest Art Gallery
- White Noise Therapy For A Better Night’s Sleep
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Elevate the way you listen to nostalgic songs with KEF
Writer | DB Damage
DB Damage is a freelance content writer passionate about creative subjects like music, film, and video games. He studied IT and music technology at college and has a background in managing and promoting local bands.