The magic moment when music makes dad and mom (a little bit) cool

the magic moment

The song coming from inside my teenage son’s room was familiar from my senior year of high school, many moons ago. I nudged his door open with a smile and nodded to his speaker: “Whatchu know about that song?!” He was standing by a heap of sweatshirts and joggers, folding his laundry. And he told me, “Oh, this is old-school R&B.” Like the song must be new to me, when I’ve known it twice as long as I’ve known him.

Music blaring on a Saturday morning means it’s time for cleaning. It’s a tradition inherited from my parents. It’s where I learned the songs they loved. Sometimes they roused us with contemporary radio. Sometimes gospel. But it was best when it was ’70s soul on the record player. That was the sound of their late teens and early 20s. When that music played, I could imagine them young. The music made the memories fond and the images stick. Before long, Isley Brothers cassettes were playing in my room. And on another laundry day, decades ago, my mother nudged my door open with the very same question now coming from me.

I love these moments, catching a treasured memory from the other side. Being the adult in a scene that I recall vividly from childhood. Researchers call this a “reminiscence bump,” a phenomenon of gradual aging where more and more of our most detailed memories trace from adolescence and young adulthood. No matter how many birthdays we celebrate, this part of life remains overly represented in our remembrances. I can’t recall where we took our family vacation five years ago — but can tell you in detail about the time in high school when I wore a purple polyester tracksuit to a cookout. And everyone was singing the song now playing in my son’s room.

Music from that part of life — the late teens and early 20s — stays with us and becomes the soundtrack for the reminiscence bump. Just a few notes can take us deep into a detailed memory of a specific time and place. We return to these songs over and over again, even as our lives and styles change. They are such a staple for us that the little people around us begin to associate with them, too. They inherit an ear for it. And then, they acquire the taste.

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