Contrary to what you may have learned in some history classes, history is not solely about the big events and the world leaders. We each have our own individual history, and it often comes with a soundtrack. Many of our memories are attached to a particular song or artist, and many songs can lead to a flood of emotion.

A couple of my friends in their early 30s were recently listening to some of their favorite songs and commented about how old they felt when they realized that those songs were now almost 20 years old. My sister just bought tickets to a Def Leppard concert, as she does every time they come to town. These are just a couple of examples that led me to do some research about our reactions to the music from our formative years.

And it turns out there is some science behind this type of personal history. In an article for Slate, Mark Joseph Stern writes about “Neural Nostalgia: Why Do We Love the Music We Heard As Teenagers?” in a way that makes sense. In non-science terms, between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains develop at a more rapid rate. Brain imaging has shown that music triggers the release of neurochemicals and the more we like a song, the more neurochemicals are released. Therefore, the songs we hear and like during that time of rapid brain development tend to be more tied to our emotions.

This is also the age when you started to choose your own music and pulled away from your parents’ music. You may have chosen based solely on what you enjoy, or you may have listened to the music of your chosen social group. Music might even have been your chosen method of rebellion against your parents. Ultimately, most of these memories and emotions you feel when you hear certain songs are based around your social life.

 DUAL record player CS 450. Attribution:  CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

DUAL record player CS 450. Attribution: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

I have a decent memory about exactly when songs were popular because of my history as a military brat. Song memory can evoke a specific place and time, whether that is a first date, the prom, or a nasty breakup. If my visual memory shows me that I am remembering a song from when we lived in Idaho, I know it was either 1976 or 1977. That’s how I know The Eagles Hotel California, which still gets a fair amount of play on the radio, came out in 1976. Which means that my dad, although he really likes the Eagles, has disliked this particular song for almost 40 years. Not all music memories are good ones.

My musical memories and history is different than my daughter’s not only because of the actual songs, but because of the technology that has altered the availability of music. When I was a teenager we didn’t have a 50s channel, 60s channel, 70s channel, 80s channel, classic rock channel, disco channel, hip hop channel, etc. Today you can pick one type of music and only listen to that genre.

Sharp GF-9494 (22W) Ghetto Blaster. Attribution: Stephen Michael Barnett from Adelaide, Australia

Sharp GF-9494 (22W) Ghetto Blaster. Attribution: Stephen Michael Barnett from Adelaide, Australia

Since my teenage years in the 1970s, the physical formats for listening to music have changed almost as quickly as a teen’s developing brain. Since then I have lived through vinyl, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, and now CDs. We have moved from record players to boom boxes to CD players and to iPods and phones. We had music on a limited number of radio stations and occasionally on television until MTV premiered in 1981, when they actually played music videos.

In looking back at my personal music history, I realize that I looked for life lessons in lyrics. Top 40 stuff had its place and could be great fun, but I wanted music that meant something. Music helped me to clarify my personal beliefs and philosophies. It helped me to see not only who I wanted to be, but also who I didn’t want to be. When Andy Gibb sang “I Just Want to Be Your Everything”, other girls swooned, but I thought it sounded like way too much pressure. ABBAs “SOS” was a catchy tune that made you want to dance, but I wanted more.

So here are my life lessons, my top 3 lines from song lyrics that have stuck with me since my rapid brain development phase.

  • Freewill by Rush – “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice”.
  • Already Gone by The Eagles – “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains that we never even know we have the key.”
  • I Am Mine by Pearl Jam – “I know I was born and I know that I’ll die, the in between is mine, I am mine.”

This doesn’t mean that I don’t listen to any new music. I still listen to the radio and because I don’t like commercials, I switch around between several different stations. I hear new bands and new songs from established bands. I’m continuing to build my music history. In twenty years, I’ll still have a fondness for the songs from my teens, but I will have heard a lot of wonderful music since then.

This is my music history, and I hope it will inspire you to think, joyfully, about your own. What songs make you want to dance, to cry, to laugh? What songs inspire you? Feel free to share.