If you couldn't bring the entirety of your Spotify or Apple Music library with you to a desert island, what few songs would you bring? The desert island thought experiment may sound like a bit from High Fidelity, but in the hands of scientists, it can reveal a lot about why we love the music that we do.
According to the results of new research, there's a good chance that the songs you value most link to a very specific time in your life — and be tied to memories that have shaped who you are.
A study published Thursday in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology solidifies the idea that music from our teenage years becomes intrinsically linked to powerful memories that inform our sense of self.
In this study, scientists analyzed music choices from 80 guests on BBC Radio 4's show Desert Island Discs, a show where famous guests ranging from Paul McCartney to Grace Kelly choose eight tracks to take with them to a desert island.
Half of the songs were chosen by the guests because they were linked to important memories from when they were between 10 and 19 years old, or between 20 and 29 years old, the study finds. Researchers suggest that music heard during that period of time becomes tied to the people, places, and memories that are essential to our sense of self.
Catherine Loveday is the study's lead author and a neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster. Based on her previous research, she tells Inverse that these songs likely influence our taste for years to come.
"It is likely, however, that this effect extends beyond a single song and that we continue to prefer whole genres that we listened to during that time," she explains.
The self-defining period – Memories, especially from young adult and teenage years, influence why some songs feel powerful to us, Loveday explains.
Loveday and her colleagues note that memories we form during our teenage and early adult years are "disproportionately available even in very old age." Past research refers to this phenomenon as the "reminiscence bump" – it's a time when the brain is taking more snapshots than usual of episodes during your life.
In this paper, the authors call that period of time the "self-defining period" – a "critical period" that helps shape who we are. Music from this time tends to stick with us, Loveday explains.
"Other research on the musical 'reminiscence bump' has shown that people gravitate to music from this time but have not explored why," she says.
This study attempts to explain why that happens by analyzing interview transcripts from famous guests who appeared on the BBC Radio 4 program. The transcripts not only revealed that 50 percent of people's "desert island" song preferences were songs from their early adulthood or adolescence, but that they were all tied to very specific kinds of memories from that time.
What makes a song stick with you? – While past studies on music preferences often rely on reactions popular songs, Loveday says that analyzing song preferences expressed during Desert Island Discs creates a more natural experiment.
When someone appears on the program, they can pick any song to take with them. The songs analyzed here ranged from classical to pop to bird songs. In some cases, people didn't even like the songs they'd bring with them, Loveday says.
"Needless to say, I never did become a pop star..."
All of the songs were tied to general memories of adolescence. Many were related to "key transitions" in people's lives like meeting a partner, attending college, or experiencing a life-altering change. Loveday points to Bruce Springsteen's interview as an example: His song choices were linked to moments when he decided to learn to play guitar and when he decided to put his band together.
"We believe our results show that music becomes intrinsically linked to these very important memories," Loveday says.
Since doing this research Loveday has noticed that the songs that she's drawn to trigger similar memories. She's drawn to Petula Clark’s "Downtown", which she first heard on her parents' record player. At the time, she decided that song would make her a pop singer – not her eventual career path as a neuropsychologist. It has still influenced her life all the same:
"Needless to say, I never did become a pop star but I did support myself through my Ph.D. by being paid to sing in pubs and clubs in London," she says.
Taken together, the results are enough to make you look at your Spotify playlists a little differently as well: There's a good chance that each one of those songs can be traced back to a memory that's perhaps even more essential to your identity than you realized.
Abstract: This study is the first to demonstrate that a self-defining period (SP) for personally relevant music emerges spontaneously in a public naturalistic setting. While previous research has demonstrated that people tend to have better memory and preference for songs from their teenage years, the theoretical relevance of these studies has been limited by their reliance on forced-choice methodology and a confinement to contemporary popular Western music. Here, we examine the record choices of famous guests (n = 80; mean age = 61.6 years) interviewed for Desert Island Discs, a long-running popular radio programm on BBC Radio 4. Half of all choices were shown to have been most important between the ages of 10 and 30 years, and the most popular reason for their relevance was the song’s link to memories of a person, period, or place. We suggest that music is a defining feature of the SP, intrinsically connected to the developing self.