Nostalgic Listening, and The Process of Association

Whenever you listen to music you are playing a game of association. Constantly. Listen to Pulp, relive an experience, listen to Talk Talk, relive another. A specific key or tone might elicit an emotional response whenever you hear it. Perhaps on first listen, you enjoyed the music for the sake of the music, but associations are bound to happen, irregardless.

If you view an album as your favorite due to nostalgic reasons – memories – is it possible to see beyond the memory to the music? Can you obscure your perception of the album to the point where it is no longer a sonic experience, but a personal one? Yes. And this is what makes certain groups and certain albums so powerful, because it’s likely that you are not the only one who feels this personal, visceral connection.

It could be because of the music itself, or it could be because of the message that it conveys. Or it could be due to the musicians themselves, and what they stand for. Morrissey is a prime example. This was his first solo concert, within 6 months of the Smiths’ disbandment. It was a free concert, the only entrance requirement was that you wear a Smiths shirt. And just look at the devotion. Look at the raw, unrestrained passion of the fans. And somehow, 20+ years on, he is still creating this fervent reaction in even new fans. Yet this is not so in older fans. Why?

If you listen to the music of your youth, you will be reminded of your youth. Once you reach a certain age, the music you listened to in adolescence is no longer revolutionary, the associations change, and the message it carried to your younger self ceases to be relevant. The music becomes a form of nostalgia rather than a lifestyle.

Listening to music to feel nostalgic means that music is no longer about the sonic experience. As we age, we need to find new musicians with fresh messages and relevant content. Musicians fade in and out of our lives as we grow old in a very organic way. Music that elicits real passion in a listener is likely associated in some way to their personal life, be it in memory or in feeling. It is this process of association that allows for a truly meaningful connection to the music you listen to.

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2 Comments

  1. There’s a solid mystery in the fact that people undeniably describe music listening as an intimate experience, and, at the same time, find some kind of strangeness in the process of association. I find it very rare to listen to a record and immediately know that when you’ll give it future listens, maybe several months later, you’ll think of your life as it was when you discovered this record.
    I’m not sure that “listening to music to feel nostalgic means that music is no longer about the sonic experience”. It seems to me that there’s a certain satisfaction in discovering that some records may tell something about yourself, as if listening to ‘In Rainbows’ over and over and still being fascinated by it indicated that your taste was of a certain kind. I think that perpetual fascination is a sign of profound love for music in the “sonic” meaning of the term. “Musical nostalgia” may be aimed at the moment you discovered something about what music could make you feel, not simply about the particular moment in time at which the record/song appeared in your life. Of course listening to music creates moods and shapes the way you can perceive and then remember some particular moments. But the particularity of this process may find its origin, for some part, in the mystery of the music itself…

    1. I agree that I never know which records will be the ones that remind me of my past – which causes me to amend my argument quite a bit, especially in light of your comment that:

      “Musical nostalgia” may be aimed at the moment you discovered something about what music could make you feel, not simply about the particular moment in time at which the record/song appeared in your life.

      I hadn’t considered this, although I would say that the more you discover what music is capable of making you feel, the easier it is for you to imprint your current emotions and life-events in the music. So perhaps that is more the function of nostalgia in music as opposed to merely listening to something with great frequency during a period of your life. If I were to revise this entry, this is definitely the perspective I would take.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

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