Do some songs take you back to when you fell in love for the first time? Does a certain tune remind you of high-school? Are there melodies that fool you into believing you are a 16-year-old all over again?

For many people (myself included), music is associated with a powerful sense of nostalgia.

Nostalgia can also be induced by other sensory experiences. In the most famous literary example, the flavor of a biscuit dunked in tea caused Proust to experience nostalgia (a petite madeleine, if you are looking to try the famous memory cookie). Others could associate a recollection with a particular scent or image.

What Does the Research Say?

But music appears to be a particularly powerful memory trigger. In their 1999 study, Hennis, Rubin, and Schulkind explored the ability of music to evoke memories of the past. For older folks as well as college students, they played hit music from various eras. They discovered that music usually brought back memories. Sometimes, a song might bring back memories from a broad range of life experiences, such as high school, college, or a long-ago relationship. Other times, listening to music triggered unique memories of certain occasions.

What I found most intriguing was how frequently songs brought up generalized memories as opposed to specific ones—for example, the time you spent with someone as opposed to a single date; the mood of high school as opposed to a particular occasion. The tunes, in a word, sparked nostalgia. Of course, not every song evoked nostalgia. In Schulkind, Hennis, and Rubin’s study, the majority of songs didn’t actually evoke memories—only a small minority of songs did. More recently, Rakowski, Janata, and Tomic (2007) revealed that music regularly brought back memories and that nostalgia was one of the most commonly mentioned emotional reactions, even among college students.

Why Do Only Certain Songs Evoke Nostalgia?

Proust’s cookie-evoked memory may hold the answer to this question. Proust observed that he had noticed madeleine cookies numerous times in his childhood (they are a common sight in French pastry stores and bakeries). But, Proust had not had a madeleine dipped in tea ever since he was a child. To trigger a memory, sensations need a precise connection. Proust mentioned that he had not eaten madeleines – particularly dipped in tea – ever since his aunt shared them with him years earlier.

Hence, the sensation matched the precise experience which, crucially, had not been blurred by other similar experiences since. As soon as he tasted the tea-dipped cookie, he went back to the time that he spent with his aunt and, indeed, that entire epoch of his life.

For many of us, certain songs perform the very same memory miracle.

Wrapping Up

The joy (and sometimes, the risk) of listening to old music is that they may cause memories to resurface. A song, smell, sight, taste – and pretty much any sensation – can trigger nostalgia.

This effect tends to be most profound when there haven’t been many encounters similar to the one associated with the sensation.