Music is present in every known culture on earth and has ancient roots that extend as far back as 40,000 to 80,000 years ago.
It is integral to the culture and development of societies, and the individual people that live in them. Music is so important that it comes as no surprise that many people have an especially strong connection to the songs they heard during important developmental periods of their life. Research shows that music has several psychological functions and can help people cope with their emotions.
Because there is such a strong tie between music and emotions, particular songs can “transport” people back to the past and bring up nostalgic memories. Feelings of nostalgia often arise during difficult transitory periods or times of hardship, such as the COVID-19 lockdown.
Patrick Shay, a musician who lives in Kitchener, Ont., experiences nostalgia through music. “I bought a copy of Jimmy Eat World’s Invented CD at The Beat Goes On in Cambridge, my first year of school,” he says. “I like other albums of theirs a lot and had heard them way before, but this one for some reason—it just sticks with me. I can listen to that album and I can remember the day I got it, which is kind of crazy because it was so long ago.”
Certain music can transport people back to a specific time, place or period in their life. The certainty and reassurance of the past may contribute to wellbeing during a time where life otherwise feels out of the individual’s control.
“When I get nostalgic thinking about songs I love, or used to love, I always think about those first couple years of college. I just think that’s because it was a really big point in my life, a trajectory change,” says Shay.
A study found a link between the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in listening to nostalgic music on the streaming service Spotify.
Jennifer Buchanan, executive director of Canadian Association of Music Therapists, says there is a strong connection between the experiences we’ve had in our teenage years and the experience of living in a pandemic. “During junior high and high school, there was a lot going on for us emotionally and physically. We had lots of relationships, but also felt discombobulated at times,” she says.
The COVID-19 lockdown sparked similar feelings of uncertainty and unease, moments of despair and periods of loneliness. “It’s not surprising to me that many have drifted to the music that brings them to the time that bridges all those feelings and emotions that are relatively familiar to us,” says Buchanan.
Shay says that he finds solace in music when the artist shares vulnerable moments of their life. “Even though you don’t know this person, and even though you can’t relate to them on a personal level, you’re sort of hearing their life,” he says.
Listening to nostalgic music can also be used as a form of emotional regulation and validation. In fact, listening to sad music when feeling down is a strategy for coping with loneliness and can aid in social connectedness.
He also acknowledges that some music is just enjoyable for what it is, without needing to go deeper into it. With that being said, Shay says he tends to forget about music when there is no deeper emotional connection.
Listening to nostalgic music is not a long-term solution for curing sadness, but Buchanan says it can certainly help to alleviate or acknowledge temporary feelings of distress. “Music can meet you in the moment, exactly where you are. That’s why it is such the perfect antidote to sadness, because it validates that,” she says.
However, creating music does not provide the same relaxing benefits for Shay as listening does. “Making music uses energy and listening to music gives me energy,” he says.
In the past, Shay used music creation and songwriting as a therapeutic tool. Now, after working in the field, he has a different perspective. “I think that any time you start doing something as a job, it just becomes harder. More draining,” he says. “It’s definitely a lot easier to procrastinate as soon as it’s a job.”
Shay’s comfort song is Dance Yrself Clean by LCD Soundsystem. “Some of the lyrics are a bummer, but then it gets really big and really fun. Takes forever to start but you know it’s going to be crazy, even if you haven’t heard it before, when the beat drops. When all the instruments come in it’s going to be cool.”
The great thing about music is that it can be revisited long after it was released. Even if the old iPod Nano is no longer around, the nostalgic songs contained within it can still be found.