A while back, I read a book called This is Your Brain on Music, an exploration of music and the human brain that spanned psychology, neuroscience, and music theory in an astonishingly readable text by Dan Levitin. One of the points that comes up is why we form an emotional attachment to the music of our teenage years that is unlike any other for the rest of our lives. We keep coming back to the music we listen to at age 14, and it is always comforting and familiar. Levitin argues that this has to do with the biological and social developmental processes of the teenage years that lead us to break away from our parents’ tastes and form our own, based heavily on what our peers like and the personal experiences of those years.
To really get Levitin’s argument, read the book. I’m here because it raised another question for me. Unlike many of my peers, I was adamantly anti-popular music as a teenager. I still refuse to like a band or an album simply because my friends like it – I will always make my own judgment. As far as I can remember, at age 14 my peers were either listening to people like Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, and 98 Degrees (remember them?) or defiantly listening to 80s and 90s metal/punk bands like Nirvana and Garbage.
This section of the book stopped me in my mental tracks as I stared at the page and tried to remember – what on earth was I listening to at age 14? I warn you, the answer that I dredged up from my memory makes me sound like the most old-fashioned, quaint goody-goody in the past century. But it also explains a lot.
At age 14, apart from listening to my favorite classical music (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, mostly) and Broadway musicals (went through a phase of listening to the revival cast of “Annie Get Your Gun” on loop)…
Well, I listened to old recordings of the Los Altos High School Main Street Singers. Over and over I listened to “Dirait-on,” “Cantate Domino,” and “Alma Redemptoris Mater,” imagining I was part of the choir or trying to pick out the individual voices I knew so well from my brother’s social gatherings over the previous four years. I daydreamed endlessly about the day when I would be up there singing like that, so beautifully that people would stop and listen, amazed.
My path to Main Street was not so easy, as I’ve mentioned before. I’ve finally come to terms with some of the psychological aftermath of the high school choir experience and I’ve given myself permission to love some of it, hate some of it, and refuse to return to others. But the emotional connection to that music remains, made stronger than ever by the intense musical immersion of my Main Street year. Perhaps this explains the tortured love-hate relationship I have with my memories of high school music. I want to move on from it, but it is the music to which I have the strongest ties, and I can’t help but turn to it when I’m upset or anxious, which then brings back the old painful memories and resentful feelings. But I miss the music when I’ve ignored it for a long time.
Some people have the 90s pop princesses, some have the Beatles. I have Palestrina. I suppose it could be worse.
What were you listening to at 14?