It was after midnight on a Sunday in 1991. I know this because I was watching MTV’s 120 Minutes, a two-hour show dedicated to alternative music videos that ran midnight to 2:00 AM every Sunday. I was 18 and a freshman in college, and my friends and I had a standing appointment in the 9th floor TV lounge of our dorm to watch the show. I was half-paying attention when the host, Dave Kendall, introduced the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, but when it was over, my friends and I just looked at each other in shocked silence. We knew we had just witnessed something groundbreaking.
The big moments are easy to remember. My parents could probably tell you about seeing the Beatles for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show. But how is it that you can be listening to the radio in your car and suddenly be singing every word to a song that you haven’t heard in decades, and you’d bet your paycheck you could name the year it came out because it was playing at your town’s fireman’s carnival the summer before your sophomore year?
Brains love music. Simply hearing enjoyable music triggers the pleasure center of our brains, releasing dopamine and other fine neurotransmitters designed to make us feel good. Additionally, music can help “grow” your brain. Studying music or learning to play an instrument has been shown to increase gray matter in certain areas of the brain.
Between the ages of 12 and 22, brain growth goes gangbusters. As neural pathways are created and strengthened at an incredible rate, the music we listen to during this period further stimulates this growth and becomes “hardwired” into our brains. That’s why you can still sing that song you loved in 9th grade word for word.
But the brain alone isn’t responsible for those strong feelings about your generation’s music. There are other biological and psychological factors at play:
Ever hear a song and feel like you are being transported back in time? The reminiscence bump phenomenon is the reason we remember our younger adult lives more vividly than other years. The reminiscence bump occurs between age 10 and age 30, though memories from one’s late teens and early 20s seem to be the strongest. That adolescent/young adult brain development activity combined with new experiences (remember all those “firsts”?) that take place during that time pack a one-two punch as far as memories go, making them stronger than any other time in our lives.
Hormones and The Feels
Adolescence is a period of time when music becomes very important, and for many, becomes a tool used to make sense of new and powerful emotions. Teenagers are drawn to music and lyrics that matches and mirrors their many and varied emotions, and so we strongly recall that sense of comfort we felt as we listened to someone sing our feelings. It helped us process those thoughts and emotions, and perhaps let us know that maybe we were not as alone in the world as we thought. Someone else was out there feeling what we felt.
Identity and Self Perception
During the teen years, we begin seeking identity and exploring our sense of self. Music is also a way that teens find their “tribes” as they bond over music. (That girl from my 9th-grade shop class who loved Kate Bush as much as I did became a friend for life.) The music that you listened to probably influenced the way you dressed, how you wore your hair, and how you presented yourself to the world. Perhaps your style has evolved since then, but all of those things are part of who you are today (and why I get a little giddy when I see a Siouxsie and the Banshees t-shirt on the wall at Hot Topic).
In the book This is Your Brain on Music, author and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin states that a person’s musical taste is imprinted by the age of 14. That could explain why your parents hated that noise you listened to growing up and why you can’t understand how anyone can call what your kids listen to music.
Or…maybe your generation’s music is just better. I know mine is.