Walkman headphones with cassette tape

The Stress-Busting Soundtrack of the 80s

One thing is becoming very clear as Generation X enters AARP territory: we are now in charge of the class (we just let ourselves in, thank you very much) and we just wanna rock.

I follow a few Gen X groups on Facebook, and the nostalgia for 80s music is unbelievably strong.

I think that’s probably true for other generations, but 80s music seems to be in a genre all its own.

We Gen X-ers hang so many different memories on certain songs. We can conjure up all five senses and get right back to that special moment before the first verse of the song is done.

I remember hearing Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” while riding the school bus home in the sixth grade. That’s pretty much the memory, and I’m not sure why just that one detail survived the long arid hallways of my brain.

But when I hear that song now I instantly see myself sitting behind the bus driver feeling pretty good about the clothes I was wearing and wondering what the age of jive was. (Yes, I sat in the front of the bus, and still do. That’s how you stay out of trouble.)

Any song from Chicago 16 brings me back to my heart-a-fluttering days for whatever flavor-of-the-month movie star I was obsessing over.

Thank goodness for streaming and playlists, or I’d be missing out on reliving all this. It’s a great time to be alive!

Lucky for us, the science people can show there’s more to our connection with music than just nostalgia.

Why You Still Want Your MTV

When we listen to music, especially those tracks that are attached to our developmental years, our brain lights up. This isn’t just an emotional response; it’s a complex neurological process.

  • What’s that sound? The auditory cortex in the temporal lobe area of the brain processes the basic properties of music, such as pitch and rhythm. This activation is the initial step in how music is perceived and understood by the brain.
  • You get the feels for the old days: Music engages the limbic system, including the amygdala and hippocampus. The hippocampus is charged with forming and retrieving memories, which explains why music can bring on such vivid memories and emotions.
  • You’re motoring: The cerebellum and motor cortex work together to produce physical reactions like tapping feet or dancing.
  • Not just a simple mind: The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that involves planning and anticipation. It’s focused on complex cognitive behavior and decision-making, which is also engaged when we interact with music, such as when we predict the next note in a melody.

That may be the Schoolhouse Rock version of how it all works, but a recent study shows that listening to 80s music may actually relieve stress.

A hair transplant clinic studied over 1,500 adults who underwent mental stress tests while listening to various music playlists spanning different decades. When it came to the 80s playlist, the participants reported a 96% reduction in blood pressure, and 36% reported a drop in heart rate.

Those are two big indicators in managing stress, and this group saw the biggest reduction. That feels like justification to me!

Interestingly, heavy metal came in a solid second place for reducing stress.

Rock on!

Whether you listen to 80s music, you play an instrument, or you can sing all the words to “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” you don’t need a study to tell you that having music as a part of your life will go a long way to help manage stress.

In a crazy world that’s constantly changing, 80s music, or whatever the music of your youth, is a pretty powerful soundtrack between the past and the present. Music is an easy way to sample a simpler time when everything seemed possible and a little less weird.

So crank up that playlist, and fight for your right to … stay calm!


Bellier, L., Llorens, A., Marciano, D., Gunduz, A., Schalk, G., Brunner, P., & Knight, R. T. (2023). Music can be reconstructed from human auditory cortex activity using nonlinear decoding models. PLoS biology21(8), e3002176. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3002176

Pereira, C. S., Teixeira, J., Figueiredo, P., Xavier, J., Castro, S. L., & Brattico, E. (2011). Music and emotions in the brain: familiarity matters. PloS one6(11), e27241. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0027241

Gordon, C. L., Cobb, P. R., & Balasubramaniam, R. (2018). Recruitment of the motor system during music listening: An ALE meta-analysis of fMRI data. PloS one13(11), e0207213. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0207213

Toader, C., Tataru, C. P., Florian, I. A., Covache-Busuioc, R. A., Bratu, B. G., Glavan, L. A., Bordeianu, A., Dumitrascu, D. I., & Ciurea, A. V. (2023). Cognitive Crescendo: How Music Shapes the Brain’s Structure and Function. Brain sciences13(10), 1390. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci13101390

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