I had the good fortune to come of age during the richest musical epoch—well, ever. The Grateful Dead, the Beatles, Dylan, Janis Joplin, Zappa. I could go on and on. The ‘60s witnessed an unparalleled burst of musical creativity, ranging from the Cream to CCR to Hendrix and to Neil Young and Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. There is simply no match—not before nor since—for this outpouring of enduring song. And what’s more, nobody really disputes this.
Okay, okay. I wrote all those superlatives in part to provoke a reaction. There are people who dispute this claim, and indeed some are among my own friends and family. They say that ‘60s music just seems incomparable to me because I was a young man when I encountered it. If I keep going back to Leonard Cohen and the Doors even today, they say, it’s only because those melodies were seared into my neurons when I was youthful and impressionable.
It’s hard to prove, one way or the other. But my critics do have some psychological science on their side. My musical preferences could be part of what scientists call the “reminiscence bump”—a peak in personal memories, of all kinds, that consistently comes in late adolescence and early adulthood. That is, we all remember more detail, more clearly, from this stage of our development. Since music is so emotional and personal and memorable, doesn’t it make sense that it would peak the same way?
That’s the question that Cornell University psychological scientist Carol Lynne Krumhansl set out to explore—or one of the questions. She wanted to see just how our early musical memories intersect with, and shape, our other autobiographical memories. She also wanted to see how music is transmitted from generation to generation, and to explore whether this pattern may have changed along with dramatic cultural shifts of the past half century.
To answer these questions, she took short excerpts from the top two Billboard hits from each year, from 1955 to 2009. She recruited a group of 20-year-olds, and had them respond to each song on several scales: Did they recognize the song? Did they like it? Did they have personal memories associated with the song? If so, was this memory from growing up and listening with parents? From listening alone? With others? Finally, what emotions did they associate with each song? Did they feel energized, or nostalgic? Sad, happy, angry? Krumhansl also gathered demographic information, including parents’ age, and information on listening habits, both growing up and current.
For analysis, Krumhansl grouped these song samples into five-year periods, so that each of 11 periods contained excerpts from ten songs. As she describes in a forthcoming article in the journal Psychological Science, she found that personal memories associated with songs increased steadily from birth to present day. This was not surprising: These music-evoked memories would presumably be part of the reminiscence bumps that these 20-year-olds would experience later in life.
What was surprising was this: There was a spike in personal memories associated with the music of the early 1980s, and also a sustained spike in personal memories linked to music of the ’60s — the entire decade. Remember that these young listeners were born around 1990, which means that they’re experiencing reminiscence bumps for music of previous generations. What do we make of these rich personal memories for music from before they were born?
Krumhansl interprets the ’80s spike as an intergenerational influence. That is, the subjects’ parents were born around 1960, so they would have encountered late-’80s music in their own formative, early-adult years. They established their tastes and then played this music at home, including during their child-rearing years. The young subjects reported nostalgic feelings about this music, which makes sense.
The ’60s spike is a bit more puzzling. It could be that this music was transmitted through the family — but through two generations. In other words, the 20-year-olds may have learned this music from their grandparents. It could also be that new listening technologies — cassette tapes, for example — made ’60s music more available. Or — the interpretation I favor — it could simply be that the music of Led Zeppelin and Dylan is better music, unparalleled before or since.
Excerpts from Wray Herbert’s blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in The Huffington Post and elsewhere.