Music, memory, and the nostalgia of Understanding


Just a few of the great questions you might ask when you find yourself frustrated with a young adolescent. I was reminded of these questions recently upon receiving an e-mail from a frustrated parent. Riddled with the kind of language we all fall victim to when frustrated, “they cant…” or “I don’t know why they…” It was hard to read. Particularly, because as with all of my students, this is a student that I have seen succeed in so many ways over the years.  So after responding with a quick affirmation that this student in fact CAN do this and IS an amazing part of our class, I began to think about the questions above, and how often we ask them.

Truthfully though, these questions aren’t worth asking if you’re not focusing on how amazing the process of brain development is. Think about it. Really sit back and realize that young adolescents-in the best of times- are working through one of the most active periods of brain development in there entire life (Spear). As their brains rewire, a process referred to as synaptic pruning, they are constantly growing, learning, and adapting to their environments. This while they are still fully a decade or more away from developing the portion of our brain that handles decision making and executive control.

So when a teacher friend or a parent of a middle schooler asks me… “How can I possibly understand? Or “I do not honestly remember what this was like,” I tell them about one of my favorite strategies; When I start tearing my hair out, saying to myself, ‘WHAT THE CUSS IS WRONG WITH THESE TINY HUMANS?! I try and put myself back in the mindset of a young adolescent. I stay late after school. I close the classroom door. I put a song on the speakers at the highest volume they tolerate and I clean the classroom- listening to one of my absolute favorite songs from middle school. 

As most of us know music is powerfully connected to memories, kind of like how smell can remind you of a place you haven’t been in thirty years? As neuropsychologist Lutz Jäncke writes, “Hearing music associated with our past often evokes a strong ‘feeling of knowing” (Jäncke). Sometimes just listening to art that spoke to you when you were feeling all those intense emotions of young adolescenthood… It makes it come flooding back to you and you remember what was so hard about being “all jacked up in the brain pudding.” That great big pile of neurons on top of our heads, swimming in neurotransmitters. 

So when you’re pulling your hair out, take a deep breath. Pull out that special album from your time as a teenager instead. Try and remember what it felt like. Because there were moments of pure joy. There was extreme excitement. But there was also disappointment. There was confusion. There was likely great frustration at times. Remembering that can go a long way to getting to a place of understanding.

It’s advice that I take myself all too often.

So where am I heading next? Well, school in a time of COVID isn’t always fun and games in the woods… so I’m going to go find a place to play some music that reminds me of the friends and family that got me through the period of adolescence. Feel free to click below if you need a little bit of punk rock in your life… or if you just need to hear the message that we’re here if you need it.

“If I fall back down, you’re gonna help me back up again. If you fall back down, your gonna be my friend.” – Tim Armstrong, Rancid 

Thanks for reading!

-Cliff 7/8 Social Studies

Works Cited

Brennan, Casey, et al. “SiOWfa16: Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy.” SiOWfa16 Science in Our World Certainty and Controversy, 16 Sept. 2016, regards to music bringing,are implicit and explicit memories.&text=They also seem to last,attached to a certain emotion.

Jäncke, Lutz. “Music, Memory and Emotion.” Journal of Biology, BioMed Central, 8 Aug. 2008,, Linda Patia. “Adolescent Neurodevelopment.” The Journal of Adolescent Health : Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2013,