Why We Still Love the Music We Loved as Teenagers

Do you remember the first album you bought? The first concert you went to? How about the songs that played at your prom or during your first kiss? I bet you do.

Music is a transformative and important part of the coming-of-age process. But why? And why does the music we love as teenagers often remain the music we still enjoy as adults?

To answer these nagging and important questions, we spoke with Petr Janata, PhD, of the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Davis. Janata is a cognitive neuroscientist who studies the psychology of music. He talked with us about the effect adolescence and music have on the brain and our memories, and what determines if we will like the next generation’s music.

The Reminiscence Bump & Imprinting

Have you ever wondered why we have so many vivid memories from our teenage years, yet we can barely remember what we had for breakfast this morning? You’re not alone. Our ability to recall so many of our adolescent experiences with crystalline clarity is called the “reminiscence bump” by scientists.

As we all know, being a teenager is intense, and is often filled with soaring highs and abysmal lows. It is also a time of life when a lot of people navigate new milestones and situations for the first time. As a result, teenagers have a lot powerful emotional experiences -- be they happy, sad, scary, thrilling, or something else entirely -- that imprint themselves heavily on us. In other words, our brain does a good job of filing these vivid memories away on a more permanent level because they are highly significant at the time.

Bruce Springsteen - "Glory Days"

According to Janata, “We know that really emotionally meaningful situations are remembered more strongly than non-emotional situations. So if you take a person in the time of life when they’re having lots of strong emotional and social experiences… it kind of makes sense that memories of events from those periods of life are going to be remembered better.”

Music is often a key component of many of those memories. But why is that? Often, teens find music helpful in the search for their identity as well as a fruitful way of bonding with their peers.

Music, Personal Identity, & Interpersonal Bonding

It’s usually around adolescence that kids start getting into music and, consequently, start defining their musical tastes. Part of this process of musical discovery, for many, includes seeing themselves in the music, lyrics and artists. Selecting a band to like is often seen as a reflection of one’s self, values, and aspirations. Music helps us define our personalities, particularly during our younger years.

"Music is often used as a way to find others and connect and, from there, we form impressions of individuals based on the music they listen to."

In addition to allowing us to figure out who we are, music is also a form of social bonding during the teenage years -- a kind of “social glue,” according to Janata. Music is often used as a way to find others and connect and, from there, we form impressions of individuals based on the music they listen to. After all, haven’t we all judged someone based on their musical taste?

And, as you might guess, we tend to like individuals more who like the same music we do. Janata says that a common musical link among teens “is what can hold a group of friends together.” He goes on to say that “it’s an important component of shared experience” and points out that teenagers are big music consumers. In other words, “This thing that helps hold people together is also something that they engage with all of the time,” he explains, and then continues, “the fact that it forms such an important portion of a person’s life during these years goes a long way to explain why it ends up getting imprinted. It goes a long way to form the identity of that person for those years.”

So, the brain strengthens our music memories from this time -- and these songs, which hold significance and memories, are tied to our identity, friendships and relationships. Thus, we continue to like that music, even well into adulthood. But how do we add new music to our repertoire? And why are some people so critical of new music? Are they simply music snobs or is it something else?

Are You an “Open” Person?

Are you open and receptive to new experiences? According to Janata, this aspect of personality, “openness to experience,” is a big factor in how accommodating of new music people are. If you are, then chances are you’re also open and receptive to new kinds of music and artists as you get older. If you’re not, you might be someone who finds themselves not liking the next generation’s music.

But don’t fret if you’re not an “open” person. Science is on your side. Janata says that the brain tends to like the familiar because it is easier to assimilate and dislike the unfamiliar because it’s — unsurprisingly — more difficult to assimilate. He goes on to describe the how the general “job” of the brain is to make sense of the environment and therefore make those environments more predictable. So when we encounter something that’s not predictable or familiar, our brain tends not to like it, wonders what’s going on, and tries to make sure that the new thing or experience is not threatening. Therefore, if you experience a new kind of music that is dramatically different from what you typically listen to (say, death metal when you typically lean towards classical), you are more likely not to enjoy it.

How To Learn To Stop Worrying & Love New Music

But there’s still hope if you’d like to try and get into new kinds of music! Dr. Janata suggests capitalizing on music familiarity when adopting new music. As you might expect, if the new music you’re listening to sounds similar to music you already like (for example, they’re both jazz) or they share similar emotional palettes (for example, both are upbeat and happy), you are more likely to be receptive to it. Thus, you can start slowly and take baby steps if you’d like to branch out into new music.

So, rejoice! You’re not destined to hate your kids’ music. However, if you do, you might have just learned a little bit about why — and a little bit about yourself, too.

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