Column: Why do the old songs sound better?

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By: 

Roger VanHaren

Last week we went to see a concert by Jeff Dayton, who for many years headed the backup band for Glen Campbell. This was a very quiet, easy concert featuring Jeff on guitar and singing 20 or 25 familiar songs, backed up by his friend Mark Bendickson on guitar. No drums, no bass, no keyboards, no horns – just two guitars and a pleasant voice.

We heard songs from Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Gene Autry, Jerry Reed, Vince Gill, the Kingston Trio, Gary Puckett, George Strait, Mack Davis and I don’t know how many others. He closed with a wonderful rendition of “Over the Rainbow” made famous by a native Hawaiian singer-songwriter and ukuleleist (Is that a word?) called “Braddah Iz.” I love that version.

The thing that was so amazing about the concert was that most of the people in the full house sang along with almost every song, many of them going back into the ‘6os or before. That probably says something about the average age of the concert attendees, but it also says something about the songs themselves: They had memorable, memorizable lyrics.

In a couple of short months, I’ll be entering my 80s, and I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon: The music I loved 50 or 60 years ago still has meaning for me, and I can remember lyrics that I haven’t heard for years … and it makes me happy! “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Back in the Saddle Again,” “King of the Road” and others like that stimulate happy memories.

Why do those old songs sound sweeter than anything I hear on the radio or TV now? I read an article on the internet that said in recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have confirmed that these songs hold disproportionate power over our emotions. And researchers have uncovered evidence that suggests our brains bind us to the music we heard when we were younger more tightly than anything we’ll hear now as senior citizens – a connection that doesn’t weaken as we age. (No matter how much I like “Hallelujah” by Michael Buble and how many times I hear it, I still don’t know the lyrics.)

According to the article I read, musical nostalgia isn’t just a cultural phenomenon: It’s a neuronic command. And no matter how sophisticated our tastes might otherwise grow to be, our brains may stay jammed on those songs we obsessed over during the our “early lives.”

The rest of the article got pretty technical, talking about the auditory cortex, the premotor cortex, the parietal cortex and other parts of the brain, most of which I did not understand. But I did understand this information: When we listen to a song that triggers personal memories, the “prefrontal cortex” (whatever that is), which contains information relevant to our personal lives and relationships, will spring into action. And the lyrics come flooding back to us.

I loved the Jeff Dayton concert, and I loved singing along to all those old songs. And even if I don’t understand it, I’m glad that my mind has all those melodies and words stored back there somewhere in the recesses of my gray matter.

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.