FEATURE: Natural Selection: Why Music from Our Childhood Stay with Us



Natural Selection



Why Music from Our Childhood Stay with Us


I could have named this piece 'Teenage Kicks' but that…


IN THIS PHOTO: Cerys Matthews/PHOTO CREDIT: BBC Radio 6 Music

might have, either, made you think of The Undertones or masturbation – neither are what I am aiming for here! It is said – by psychologists and the consensus – that we cannot remember anything older than the age of two. My memory is shocking and, lumbered with depression, my recollections are near-senile-levels of uselessness. I can see a person walk into a room and, seconds after they leave, not remember the colour of the top they were wearing – or what they said and most of the conversation. Some people have extraordinary memories but most of us will be in a similar situation. We only recall brief details from interactions and none of us will have any clear memories when we were a toddler. My first-ever memory was musical – I will talk about that, soon – but, in terms of clear and vivid recollections; most of mine are from childhood/early-teens. Psychologists can recondition memories regarding those who suffer trauma or P.T.S.D. – adapts the harshest images and removes the negative kernel. You do not strip the reality but modify the apex of fear and disgust; so that it is less traumatic when thinking back. Social media has changed the way we think and remember. We have search engines and get our ‘facts’ from the Internet. It changes the way we remember our lives and means now, in an ultra-high-tech age, we do not really need to retain facts and figures – we have a handy knowledge bank that means we have no need for intellectual retention.


It is interesting and, as I type this, there is a fascinating show on BBC Radio 6 Music with Cerys Matthews. Check the website and you will hear her talk to guests and artists about music and memories. It is what compelled this spark and got me thinking about music’s power and endurance. Matthews’ show is in conjunction with a BBC Radio 3 who feature neuropsychologist Dr. Catherine Loveday; who explains the psychology that connects us with the music from the past – it is an experiment being tested at the University of Westminster and BBC Radio 3 listeners. In the piece, she provides some fascinating insights:

The brain’s memory systems are at their most efficient during late adolescence and early adulthood. We also experience many things then for the first time, which makes them particularly memorable. But the key reason that we return to songs and anecdotes from this period of our lives is that they remind us who we are. It is during these formative years that we make many crucial life-changing decisions, initiate significant long-term relationships and establish the cultural and political beliefs which form our identity.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Dr. Catherine Loveday

When people are asked about music that is important to them, they often favour songs that are associated with influential times, places and people – maybe their first holiday away from parents, a pivotal encounter with their future spouse, or a moment of self-discovery. One music producer I know, for example, chose Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, citing it as the sole reason that he decided to become a sound engineer. Songs connected to weddings, births and funerals are also very common, as are cultural references.

One possible reason for the strength of the musical reminiscence bump is that people tend to listen to more music during this period of their lives. Music has an intrinsic capacity to regulate emotions: what better way to manage the emotional rollercoaster of puberty than to wallow in Leonard Cohen, dance to Michael Jackson or chill out to The Orb?

These songs naturally become embedded in our important memories, both positive and negative. In our experiments, people regularly choose songs that they have listened to during sad and difficult times, as well as those linked with better experiences. These tunes seem to offer an important reminder of the emotional light and shade that give life meaning.

Music also plays a fundamental bonding role in many adolescent relationships, whether with family, lovers or friends. In our analysis of Desert Island Discs, we found that one of the most frequent reasons for a guest’s record choice was that it reminded them of a specific person, often a parent or a partner.

It has even been suggested that there may be a “cascading reminiscence bump”. The music psychologist Carol Krumhansl has shown that teenagers have superior recognition for songs that come from their parents’ and grandparents’ reminiscence periods. So maybe my son’s love of The Beatles reflects my own fondness of the Fab Four, which in turn stems from my parents”.


Every one of us has different perspectives and recollections of music; how it affects us and why we retain certain memories. Does Classical music stay in the mind because it is more epic, fluid and grand?! There are no vocals – unless it is an Opera piece – and it is easier to bond with the elements and complexities. The fact the music has already survived hundreds of years means it has gravitas and potency. Is this why a lot of modern Pop escapes our mind – many design music that is instant but has no long-lasting effects? I feel too much of today’s music is concerned with a quick-fix and making that initial impression: many are not concerned with after-care and the longevity of what they create. Many of us remember what we choose to and dispense with everything else. I feel there is more to things that discarding the second-hand junk and treasuring the gold. I feel place and situation, mixed with quality, is responsible for the songs/artists that remain in the brain. I have written about this subject before – the music from my childhood more important than the music I hear now – and why memory and music are so intrinsic and complex. There is simplicity to be found: the best music and that which ties us to fonder times will always stay in the brain. I am listening to music (on BBC Radio 6 Music) and, whilst I am not a huge fan of the song itself, it instantly takes me to a particular time.


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

I have not heard Moondog’s Bird’s Lament for a long time but, when listening to it, I can visualise when I last heard it – the effect it has and all the sounds/smells present in that setting. As Matthews speaks from the Wellcome Collection; I am listening to the song that has just been played and how it has been translated and adapted through time. Moondog’s song was sampled by Mr. Scruff and has been sampled by others. The way new musicians preserve and evolve older recordings means classical favourites are making their way to younger generations – who will create their own memories of that song and, in a way, have a connection with the original. None of my musical memories centre on Classical music but it is a genre important to me. I am more drawn to the contemporary and modern sounds I grew up with and my musical memories start from about aged two. The main focus on this feature is the teenage years but my first recollection of music, and life, is hearing Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World. I was a toddler and heard the shimmering introduction and powerful chorus emanate from the family kitchen. I am not sure why it is that particular song that made its way into my memory first but there was something about the production and sound that made it impactful.


IN THIS PHOTO: Hannah Peel (who took part in the BBC Radio 3/BBC Radio 6 Music morning that looked at music and memory)

Other music memories formed but that was the beginning of it all. Childhood, in fact, was a pivotal time because of when I grew up. I was born in 1983 and lived in a very musical household – in the sense music was being played all the time. Being born in that year meant artists like Duran Duran and Michael Jackson would have been on the radio – although, I would not necessarily have remembered them that first time around. It was the exposure to my parents’ music that forged and started that love of recorded sound. I was brought up on The Beatles, T. Rex and Steely Dan – Kate Bush, The Bangles and The Rolling Stones were all in there. I think I can bond with the school of thought that suggests prolificacy and experiences cement certain times/sounds into the mind. I was exposed to so much music when I was growing up so it is only natural many of those artists remain in my mind – and that, in turn, compelled me to get more involved in music and listening. If the household were relatively mute then I do not think music would have played such a huge role this many years down the line – I would have moved to something else and might be a different person. When I was at school, those were the first real signs of independence and life. You do not have to take full responsibility for yourself but no longer are you the naïve toddler bumbling around without a care in the world.



It is a stressful and strange time where you meet new people and face the challenges of the educational system. Music was vital because it helped those harder moments but, in my view, was much stronger. The quality of sounds coming out in the late-1980s and 1990s was extraordinary. Then, we were not in the Internet age and exposed to so much music all the time. My experience with music was through radio and playground chatter. We had cassette players and would share tapes: a very different time where music and remembrance was more communicative and sociable. Kate Bush, I think, was the first icon to really stick in the mind. It was her unique edge and quality that got into the brain; the oddity and beauty of her music. The expressions and potency imbued within her music resonated and many other artists (of the time) did. I feel the music I remember from childhood is the very best we have ever heard. I remember little of the lesser chart acts and insignificant albums: all of my memories are of great and inspiring sounds of the day. We all have ‘trigger tracks’ that takes us back to specific times. Songs like A Good Heart (Fergal Sharkey’s version) and Super Trouper remind me of my late aunt; the Dance music of the ealry-1990s of middle-school and friendships. I feel circumstance and situation are more powerful than quality – when it comes to the songs we remember. I had a relatively happy childhood and school was not especially traumatic. The lessons and curriculum have faded – in the sense I have assimilated those lessons into my head and they have surpassed their practicality – but the music has not evaded me.


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

I can associate certain songs with very clear memories. One that comes to mind is a classmate getting on a chair (might have been 1992) and playing The Shamen’s Ebenezer Goode. It was a bold moment but one we all responded to with tribal dancing and chorus singalong. I have countless memories like that because it was a transformative and challenging time. Children have to take a lot in and it is a tough time: the first experience of stepping out of the household and interacting with other humans. There was, unfortunately, a lot of bullying in my early years. This is especially true of high school where I was subjected to physical and verbal torment. The perpetrators have all forgotten the times, I assume, but they are scorched in my mind. It was hard explaining and revealing the torture to my parents – the scars made dialogue inevitable – so music was a form of escape and comfort. The paternality and soothe of the music meant I could channel the fears, pain and upset of the bullying into music. I became more immersed and engrossed in music because it was a confession booth and silent friend. Many of us forget what we did this morning but can remember why we listened to The Beatles as a youngster. The longer-term memories migrate to a different part of the brain; musical memories are distinct and (evidentially) are kept in a part of the brain immune to the worst effects of ageing and dementia, let’s say. We discard the triviality of the ordinary day because most of what we experience is inane and insignificant. We remember the most harrowing and day-altering events but most of it is forgotten. Most of the music we grew up with gets lost but we instantly tie songs and artists to particular times.


IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles/PHOTO CREDITHulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

There is a plurality inherent in music whereby we tie particular songs to memories – rather than people and conversation. I want to finish up by talking about the teenage years and the period from high school to university. It is beguiling when we listen to single notes and why certain songs come to mind quicker. We can hear a single second of one song and it instantly springs to mind: others, it takes other songs longer before they are identifiable. There might be something in the sonic make-up or the popularity of that song. One could spend hours debating music robustness and whether certain genres and styles make a bigger imprint. To me, all of my musical passion and strongest memories come from the time when I was a teenager. This is the period in our life when we take a more active role in music and start discovering it on our own – not as beholden to our parents’ tastes and hand-downs. I guess school and going from one to another is more memorable than other periods of our lives. These are the times where we all experience dislocation and new challenges. Music is the constant that follows us and is that universal bonding tool. Because I was older – and knew about school and how difficult it is to adapt to a new setting – it was especially hard going to high school. Although it was a mile from where I lived; it felt like another world. It was much more grown up and I feel, the closer one gets to adulthood and job responsibility, the more pressure you have at school.


IN THIS PHOTO: My old high-school, Glebelands

My peers felt that pressure and, rather than sublimate it, we expressed that through discussion. Invariably, that turned to music and the best songs at the time. I entered high school in 1994 and right in the middle of the Britpop explosion. Acts like Blur and Oasis tussled for chart glory; Pulp were the intellectual outsiders – brilliant chart music at the time got into the mind, Dance and Electronic music meant the likes of The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers were synonymous. Throw in the last throes of Grunge and the rise of U.S. guitar music and it was a wonderful time. The fact the finest music of all time (in my mind) coincided with the most stressful period of my life means the sounds of the time have a larger portion of my memory and fondness. Maybe it is the fact so much of the 1990s music is played now – less so with the 1980s – that this period sticks in the mind. One can tie that to quality but, to me, the connections to the people I went to school with is much more enduring than the popularity of the music. The songs of the 1990s helped me through tough days and soundtracked some of the fondest memories from the period. Friendships were cemented, great achievements occurred and priceless times imprinted in the mind – all backed by some tremendous music. I listen to certain songs and can remember people and particular conversations. I feel music’s true power is when it connects one to their past and the way music guided and supported them. I survived high school and one of the reasons I was keen to continue studying was the power of music and the fact it was a constant companion. Of course; that love continues to this day and it is questionable whether I would write about music were it not for the role it played all those years back. Such a fascinating one that deserves more exposure but, for now, it has got me thinking about songs from childhood – a chance to revisit them now. Think about music and the role it plays in your life; why it is so important and the wonderful….


PHOTO CREDITFuture Music Magazine/Future

MEMORIES it provokes.