Those kids and their dang music...
May 1, 2008 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Why are we so connected emotionally to music from our generation, but not others?

My parents, for example, are connected to music from the 60's and 70's, me from the 80's, my grandparents from the 40's and 50's. This level of emotional connection usually does not cross generational boundaries. Also, I don't get nearly as connected emotionally to new music now as I did when I was younger, which was true of my parents and my grandparents in relation to the music I enjoyed listening to. I find that I can respect music from other generations a lot more now than I used to, but it's in more of an academic sense, rather than an issue of being deeply connected.

I suspect it has something to do with what is being listened to at a key time in our emotional/physical/biological development, and it gets imprinted in us, in a sense. Has there been any official research or academic speculation discussing why this happens?
posted by SpacemanStix to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know why, but I do know this phenomenon is what's to blame for the proliferation of classic rock radio stations.

There are exceptions, though - I'm in my late 30s and I love new music. Furthermore, I can barely listen to my old high school faves like U2 or REM anymore.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 12:59 PM on May 1, 2008

Best answer: previously
posted by soma lkzx at 1:09 PM on May 1, 2008

I am not sure how universal this phenomenon is, but it sure does seem common. I think that when you are young, high school and college, you spend a lot more time finding music, discussing music with your friends, finding music from them etc. It also becomes somewhat socially important to have a good knowledge of the current music. As you get older, you tend to spend less time on these activities, and you share your music less with your friends. I think the sharing and bonding that occurs through music in one's youth leaves a powerful connection to that music.
posted by caddis at 1:12 PM on May 1, 2008

I think all you'll get from this is anecdotal stuff, so here's mine -- I listen to, collect, read about music as much as I did in my HS years (70s) and connect just as emotionally with it today as then. However, I do NOT spend anywhere near as much time discussing it with my peers. I don't think that piece of it matters much. When I listen to stuff I liked then (REO, Nugent, etc.) and I'm appalled at how much it sucks. The stuff I liked as I got a bit older, into college in the early 80s, I don't listen to now because I really don't hear anything new or interesting in it, and the reason I love music is that among all the mediocrity, you'll find a song or an artist that says it or does it in a completely new way and that's so redemptive and heartening.

Maybe it's just the rush of finding something new and different that people get emotionally attached to, and they don't have the time or inclination to seek that out as they get older, so they keep going back to the older stuff, trying to relive that piece of it (as opposed to the music itself)?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:23 PM on May 1, 2008

This is totally untrue for me. I love music from the 60s and 70s because it is timeless, even though I wasn't born until '75.

I have zero connection to anything that was out in the 90s when i was in HS and college. This is because almost all the rock music in that era was absolutely awful (except Pulp).

I think this phenomenon appears to be very common now because boomers are a dominant cultural force, and the (popular) music of their era was exceptionally good. I don't really see anyone in 2030 reminiscing very fondly about Linkin Park.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:29 PM on May 1, 2008

Well, I'm desperately clinging to my youth. And also, this new music sux.

But seriously, a lot of exciting stuff happens when you're young. Everything is new. Lots of firsts: dating, driving, social events without your parents. The music that's on the radio gets connected to those things.

So: Green Day's Dookie reminds me of my first Junior High School dance.

Beastie Boys reminds me of the summer before my Senior Year of High School.

But also: Carole King reminds me of hanging out with my Mom. Hanson reminds me of my little sister (in a love/hate sort of way). Iron Butterfly reminds me of Dad. And MTV, in general, reminds me of my Grandma.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 1:30 PM on May 1, 2008

I think it's part of (and for some people, it's almost central to) identity formation -- both your personal identity as separate from your parents, as well as your social identity in relation to your peers, so what you bond with (and over) at a certain age tends to get woven into a kind of musical DNA. So even though there's new (or at least new-ish) stuff that I like or even love quite passionately, it's not hard for me to see the link between the new stuff back to the old stuff, especially the stuff that's resonated in this deep and almost primal way with me for decades.

I was actually thinking about this on the way to work this morning: Nick Lowe's "Cruel to Be Kind" came on my ipod, and I repeated it 3 or 4 times, exactly as I always do, each and every time it comes up on my playlist. And I tried to do the math: how many times have I heard to those opening chords and grinned a bit, or felt a little thrill in my chest at that first drum roll? Hundreds? Thousands? Would I feel compelled to listen to it repeatedly if I'd first heard it in my 20s rather than my early teens? What made me the kind of kid who staked her whole life on music at such an early age, anyway? And seriously, isn't it just one of the greatest pop songs ever?
posted by scody at 1:32 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would suggest that this is not necessarily universal across all people. I feel very emotionally connected to many kinds of music from many different time periods - from hundreds of years old classical to yesterdays pop. I've always had a very strong dislike for the way that people (pre)judge music based solely on the fact that is "old people" music or "for the kids."

That being said I think Green Eyed Monster has it with "it's what you were listening to when you did XYZ the first time (and the second time, and maybe the third time)" so we develop nostalgic emotional ties with certain music, the same way we develop memory associations with smells, etc.
posted by mbatch at 1:57 PM on May 1, 2008

This could also be said for television programs, movies, books, etc. Pop culture during our years of 'growing up', will always give us a tug that current culture does not. It's not that there was anything better about the culture of our defining years, it's just that it was ours. It belongs to us and we belong to it. We also may idealize the times of our youth and think that maybe it was a little better 'back then' because we associate current pop culture with the problems and stress of being an adult and all the difficulties in the world these days.

It makes me think of a quote - "In times like these, it is helpful to remember that there have always been times like these."

As far as actual research into your question, I'm not aware of any other than anecdotal observations.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 1:59 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

As you stated, I believe it’s because the music was playing in the background when we were experiencing some of the most powerful emotional moments of our lives. Our first kiss, our first love, our first heartbreak, etc.

When we hear these songs again, they invoke powerful memories and nostalgia. This is purely anecdotal, however, as I haven't looked up any research articles on the subject. I'm sure some exist, however.
posted by xotis at 2:02 PM on May 1, 2008

I was born in '79, and love Bob Dylan and the White Stripes. I think you may be generalizing from your own perspective.
posted by EarBucket at 2:04 PM on May 1, 2008

I've heard the reason is the music you like during your sexual awaking will always be special to you. For most people, this is the music that was popular at that time.
posted by Rash at 2:08 PM on May 1, 2008

I think it matters less what generation the music you're listening to comes from - but what stage of your life you were in when you first heard it. Naturally, teens listen to what's "new" at the time, and if you dig on it as they do, then it will become the soundtrack for some of your most potent personality-forming experiences.

However, there are friends of mine who weren't into the Nirvanas and the NINs and the Pearl Jams or what-not of the time, and instead were all about The Doors, Zeppelin, what-have-you. Now close off to their 30s, these friends can sit and listen to "The End" and remember all sorts of interesting things about their adolescence, whereas I get almost teary-eyed listening to Faith No More's "Angel Dust" cause that's what I was rockin' in the busted-ass VW Bus I drove in high school.

2 paragraphs wasted trying to basically say "you're most attached to the music that you enjoyed during a more innocent, curious, personality-forming part of your life" :)
posted by revmitcz at 2:13 PM on May 1, 2008

Best answer: I think it has to do with music being listened to a lot at emotionally intense times. Similar to what revmitcz said. For instance, I was in high school in the 90s, so the Lemonheads or Nirvana will always bring on that intense rush of feelings. But I also have an intense connection to certain songs by Fleetwood Mac, because I bought a tape of their greatest hits when I was traveling around Asia when I was 23 and listening to them always brings me back to that amazing time.

Also, I - and a lot of my friends - have a strong emotional reaction to many Baby Boomer favorites like Paul Simon or Eric Clapton, cause that's the stuff my parents listened to when I was a kid.
posted by lunasol at 2:18 PM on May 1, 2008

What others have said but that's not always true. For example, I came of age during the late 70's-early 80's and while I always jump up and rock out every time I hear AC/DC I also love opera, Tool, and Sinatra. But I recall my first dance with an actual girl where I copped a feel was to Cheap Trick's 'I Want You To Want Me'. Jennifer something-or-other....

Anyway I always give a small grin when I hear the Thompson Twins, Devo, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, or Echo and the Bunnymen on the radio but they certainly havent defined my musical tastes.
posted by elendil71 at 2:36 PM on May 1, 2008

There's a truism similar to Rash's assertion that you will always like the music you liked when you were 16. Not everybody is like this, of course, but many many people are.
posted by rhizome at 3:13 PM on May 1, 2008

I completely hated rap and most techno when I was 16, now I love the stuff. Of course back then, all my friends were listening to 2 Live Crew, or Bell Biv DeVoe, and techno hadn't really matured yet. My favorite musical era is prety much right now for exactly that reason. Electronic music technology has matured by leaps and bounds since the time I was a kid, and the style has matured right alongside it. I find a lot of the stuff being created right now to be mind-blowing.

I sort of feel the same way about post-rock. (I don't really like the label, but whatever) It feels like it grew from the same impulses that drove prog rock in the 70's, but coming from a more indie sort of background, it tends not to become as ridiculously grandiose/bombastic as Yes, or Marillion, or those sorts of bands. Maturation again makes what's being created right now really good.
posted by fnerg at 3:23 PM on May 1, 2008

Also, to answer the question, I don't think that sort of connection necessarily has to be age-related. I think it just usually is because people don't usually have as much time to seek out new music as they age, and after awhile, it just becomes habit to listen, and groove to the same old stuff.
posted by fnerg at 3:25 PM on May 1, 2008

Best answer: Impressional years hypothesis (previously, in great length).
posted by flug at 3:43 PM on May 1, 2008

Best answer: Forgot to mention, googling for "impressionable years hypothesis" is helpful.
posted by flug at 3:45 PM on May 1, 2008

I feel very connected to plenty of music that was performed and recorded long before I was born (pre-war blues, early country & western...) as well as a lot of music from my g-g-g-generation (Allman Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone...) and music from more recent years (Portishead, Missy Elliott), so I guess I'm adding my voice to the opinion that love of music, or sense of connection to it, is not necessarily age-related. Probably has more to do with a personal inclination on the part of any given individual to seek out and really listen with an open mind to music from different periods and different categories.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:33 PM on May 1, 2008

Response by poster: Great feedback, everyone. Thanks very much for your thoughts.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:44 PM on May 1, 2008

Best answer: You can find some scholarly commentary and even a few papers on the subject by Googling around with terms like +adolescent +development +music (and sorting through the chaff of OMG Heavy Metal Will Ruin Your Children sites). It looks as though it's an emerging area of study, and not a lot is online.

Personally, I agree with those who say that generation is not the single determinant of what music creates an "emotional connection." I grew up in the 80s and actively resisted most of the pop music developments of the time, connecting more instead with the folk revival and counterculture music of my parents and the generation that went before me, and also the FM rock that was ubiquitous in the 70s. As a crunchy campy outdoorsy teenager, acoustic guitar songs that were already 20 years old moved me the most. Only now can I hear 80s pop and enjoy it. Any emotional connection I feel is simple nostalgia, mingled with amusement over the mostly flat-out silliness of the era's music, especially its Top 40 stuff.

So I don't think it's your age alone. Adolescence is a pretty complex time, biologically, socially, cognitively, and emotionally. There is a lot going on, and it's a potent stew. One of the primary developmental concerns of adolescence is identity formation, as mentioned above, and music is important to the establishment of identity, including elements of chosen community and individual taste. We use music for a number of reasons, and one of the reasons is definitely to express our ideas of ourselves. I can remember making long lists of bands in 7th or 8th grade, laboring over the rankings. I can remember meeting and bonding with people over nothing but such long lists of favorite bands or songs. I see all of this now as learning to form individual, personal bonds with others, using music as a bridge and a marker of tastes and interests.

But another thing that makes music feel especially powerful in adolesence, I personally believe, is the dawn of abstract reasoning at around puberty. In fact, it's the ability to think in abstraction that gives teens the very idea that others might see them differently than they see themselves, and that they have to work to establish the identity they wish others to see. Kids at about 12 or so will often comment "I've always loved X song, but it's only recently that i started listening to the words." The sudden onrush of abstract thinking in adolescence is profoundly disorienting, and reconciling self and society is a big job. This is the same reason teens start to ponder questions like "Why am I here?," "What am I supposed to be doing with my life?," "Who am I anyway?" The music kids listen to is not only the soundtrack for this new type of introspection and self-perception, but also an important supplier of clues as to what and who is important in life.

Add in some other heady drams -- that musical taste and musical ability are among the things that capture the interest of potential sexual partners, that generational dynamics will often result in music that's popular being abhorrent to authority figures (more help in distinguishing your identity from your parents' and teachers'), that music (at least popular music) generally accompanies other fun and entertaining independent activities like dancing, driving, drinking around bonfires, and so on, and it's pretty hard to ignore it at this particular time in your life.

Though i've spent a lot of my life with music, I do sometimes look back on the relationship I had with music as a teen and miss it a bit. It's rare, today, that I get lost in a song, or play it over and over, or feel that it expresses some ineffable longing or truth. As far as emotional power goes, music has receded in its importance to my feelings while relationships and concerns about personal progress have taken prominence. I still love music, but these days it's an unusual experience when I'm that transported by it.

Good question, thanks.
posted by Miko at 7:21 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I connect the most emotionally to music that I listened to during personal rites of passage or emotionally tempestous times (i.e. breakups, sadness, love). I connect aesthetically to music based on quality of composition, and my own personal experience with the (what's the instrumental equivalent of a trope or metaphor?) genres that music builds upon. Because an aesthetic appreciation of variety in music for me relates to experience listening to music, and emotional connectedness relates to my experience of life, the intersection tends to favor a stronger connection to the music of my youth. I suspect it's the same for most.

However, my personal progression in music was classical->prior generation's rock and roll->punk->blues->jazz vocalists->techno->etc... so instead of identifying strongly with my generation's music, I tend to identify with my uncle's generation's music (I say uncle because my parents dont really like music).
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:20 PM on May 1, 2008

posted by edtut at 3:01 AM on May 2, 2008

I'm more of the "hate all popular music but then listen to it nostalgically years later" camp, but I'll say that most people of the ages 5-10 don't really understand what good music (or sitcoms) is, so you just like what you hear then, because it is all you hear.
posted by herbaliser at 9:19 AM on May 2, 2008

I agree with those who have said association. Any music that is meaningful to you will be much more so during emotionally intense times. For most of us, adolescence is one of the first, most intense of these times, and I think we sort of bond with the music we love then. (Think about how differently you may feel about friendships from adolescence--for me those were intense, important.)

Also, in the past century, primarily through commodification and marketing, music has become closely associated with identity in our collective imaginations, and as adolescence is the period when we form our most vivid sense of self (as Miko eloquently explains above), anything that plays a strong role in that formation is going to be felt as significant throughout life.

How we develop and change musical taste more generally is another thing altogether.
posted by LooseFilter at 2:26 PM on May 3, 2008

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