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Echoes of Nostalgia; Examining the Sentimental Impact of Music

By Millie Grainger

Lynton Lamb. Winter Landscape. 1962

‘Music, when soft voices die,

Vibrates in the memory—

Odours, when sweet violets sicken,

Live within the sense they quicken.’

- Music When Soft Voices Die, by Percy Bysshe Shelly, 1821

With this November’s release of Spotify Wrapped, I have found myself again listening to the same few artists that have dominated my charts since secondary school. This is not a conscious choice, and I probably wouldn’t even call them my favourite artists, yet there's an undeniable comfort in revisiting the familiar tunes that I know so well, that I can’t help but return to them year by year. With this realisation, I began to question my own sentimental attachment to music from my past. What causes the strong waves of nostalgia that wash over me when listening to playlists from my adolescent years? It is not because those times were better, in fact they probably mark the more miserable moments of my life. Yet, any objective memories of these dreary years are overridden by nostalgic reminiscence when listening to my favourite music of the time. With this in mind, I would like to briefly talk through my own conceptions of musical nostalgia, considering what nostalgia sounds like, what people feel nostalgia for, and why this might be.

To describe the sound of nostalgia seems to be an impossible task, and one to which my knowledge of music theory is not nearly equipped to tackle. This difficulty is in part owing to the entirely subjective nature of both nostalgic triggers and music taste. In an attempt to explain my own relationship with this elusive subject, I will have to take more of an abstract approach. To me, nostalgia sounds like those cold, foggy mornings in late November, when the last of the autumn sun shines golden light through gaps in the trees and you know that you must cherish this moment as the dark of winter is soon to set in. It sounds like that zone in-between sleep and wake, sat slumped in the backseat of a bumpy car, listening half-consciously to the rain drumming on the window that freezes the tip of your ear as you rest your head. It is the sound of a soft melody that you can’t quite recall, let alone explain to others, that lives somewhere deep within your bones and sings to you when you’re finally alone. Some songs are like old friends. Some songs are like mirrors.

These melancholic descriptions are not universal (and potentially just a reflection of my more pessimistic character.) To some, their experience is more jovial—their nostalgic music returns them to the joie de vivre of early childhood, the giddy romance of their first love, nights spent dancing in the kitchen over a boiling pot of pasta and a half-drank bottle of wine. Yet, even here, there is a sense of melancholy, a yearning for a time that we know cannot be relived. Musical nostalgia briefly brings us back to these moments, but it also reminds us that we will never experience them again.

Until recently, psychological studies have understood nostalgia as a longing to return to the lived experiences of our past. It began simply relating to the soldier’s desire to return home from war, but gradually loosened in its definition. ‘Home’ became a more symbolic experience, involving the abstract idea of past memories that we wish to revisit. Nostalgia is even felt for non-spatial concepts, such as feelings of love or comfort, weather, or just being stress free. However, researchers are now exploring a new version of nostalgia: nostalgia for a time that one has never personally known. This feeling was coined ‘anemoia’ in 2012 by the writer John Koenig, and describes the sentimental longing for a period, place, or even person that we have never actually experienced. Studies have linked this to the conservative politics of the younger generation (think Make America Great Again or We Want our Country Back); however, I would like to discuss this baffling variant of nostalgia in connection with the inevitable claim of every pre-teen who has just discovered The Beatles or Nirvana: ‘I was born in the wrong generation!’

Although undeniably shallow, this desire be transported into an era in which one can freely roam in flared jeans and flower crowns and witness Fleetwood Mac in all their glory reflects the overarching need for escapism in the youth of today. With the past couple of decades involving a pandemic, financial crashes, huge political tension, and numerous wars, it is easy to see why young people are using music as a vessel to find security in the past. Idealising a period you've never personally encountered is simple, given that there's no recollection of the drawbacks associated with that time. This, paired with the older generation’s tendency to use music as a testament to the simplicity of the good ol’ days, creates a fictionalised utopia of the past in young people’s minds, that is reached through the music of the era. Thus, we see a rise in this phenomenon of ‘I was born in the wrong generation’ nostalgia to escape the issues of contemporary society.

Another example of music’s powerful nostalgic influence can be witnessed in the recent revival of old analogue technologies, such as vinyl, CDs, and cassette tapes. Since the so called ‘Indie Sleaze’ era of the late 2000s, the vinyl record has experienced a mass renaissance across the globe. More recently, we have seen a similar resurgence in the sales of CDs, as today's young adults turn to this past technology to reconnect with the memories of their own childhood. The impracticality of these media (when compared with streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music) speaks to the profound effect of physicality in music consumption. Analogue technologies provide a hands-on, tactile engagement that digital formats often lack; the act of holding and examining an album elicits a personal connection to the music in a way that transcends the purely digital experience. It rekindles a sense of connection to a bygone era, where music was not just a sound but a tangible, cherished part of people's lives. This desire to return to a simpler time is a fundamental element of nostalgia, which explains why so many people harbour such a sentimental connection to physical forms of music.

In attempting to understand the effortless return to artists etched into the sonic landscape of my adolescence, this article has ventured to grasp the inexplicable connection between music and memory. The allure of these songs, even when tied to moments marked by adversity, sparked curiosity about the triggers of nostalgia. The answer, elusive as it may be, resides in the deeply personal nature of these musical recollections. We may seek nostalgia in the fleeting memories of our youth, in abstract characterisations of sound, or even in times that we have never personally experienced. As we grapple with the intangible yet powerful forces that draw us to specific sounds and lyrics, the conclusion becomes not a resolution but an invitation to unravel the intricate threads connecting music, memory, and the relentless march of time. I would like to finish this article with a collection of my own nostalgic music. These songs may vary entirely from your own conception of nostalgia, but I guess that’s the point of this discussion. Although each person harbours utterly distinct sentiments towards the sound of nostalgia, we share a recognition in the wistful remembrance of our past lives.

Echoes of Nostalgia:

Blame It On the Tetons - Modest Mouse

80’s Comedown Machine - The Strokes

Kids - Current Joys

Freakin’ Out On the Interstate - Briston Maroney

Chelsea Hotel - Leonard Cohen

When the Sun Hits - Slowdive

Quiet, The Winter Harbour - Mazzy Star

To Be Alone With You - Sufjan Stevens

House of Woodcock - Johnny Greenwood

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything - Bauhaus

Sea, Swallow me - Cocteau Twins


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