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By Hunter Farris
Have you ever gone back to your childhood stomping grounds and felt goosebumps from some profound sense of immediate nostalgia? Do you ever get that same feeling watching television or a film?
There’s something magical about a director or composer’s ability to create that poignant sense of looking back or the joy of feeling like a kid again, and the cascade of emotions that come with it, with image and sound. Depending on the project, it might be as simple as a well-arranged descending chord progression, or adding sound design to paint an expressive picture of a particular moment in time shared by many of us in our youth, like a swing set or a wind chime, for example. But there really is no one magical trick that works for all audiences all the time.
If you’re tasked with writing “nostalgic music” for a visual sequence, the key is in the subtle details of context.
And while this is a solid piece of advice for any type of composer, it’s especially important here. If you can adequately identify the audience for whom you’re writing, you can make them feel nostalgic by using the scale degrees and instruments that they would have heard when they were younger. We’ll get back to this in a moment.
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Think about your audience.
To musically touch your listener, you need to know your listener. And the better you know your listener, the better you can remind that listener of their childhood. Right about now you might be wondering, “But how well can you really know your listener?”
“I have a fictitious person I write for. And she’s called Doris, and she’s from Bradford and she wears a raincoat and she has two horrible little kids that are giving her nothing but grief. And you know, the man left her a while back. And she just, in the rain, everyday, trudges to work and she works hard.”
He knows how many kids his listener has. He knows where his listener lives. He knows what the weather is doing in her town! He goes on to say, “Sometimes my music editor says to me, ‘What do you think? Do you think Doris will like this one?'”
Of course, you don’t need to know whether your listener wears a raincoat or a windbreaker. You just need to know your listener’s musical experiences, and that’s not that hard to figure out! You can base a lot of that off educated guesses if you know both the target audience you’re writing for, and the basic context of the show or film’s fictional world.
Are you writing for millennials? A lot of millennials went through their rebellious phases when emo music was at its peak. With their brains changing and their hormones raging, the simple chord progressions and major tonalities of emo and pop punk have most likely been stamped into their subconscious as instant bookmarks of this phase of their life. Re-orchestrating a progression like vi-IV-I-V for non-guitar instruments will surely bring this audience back in subtle, emotive ways.
The same goes for children of the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, and so on. If you’re writing in a context targeted for baby boomers, why not borrow the triplets and I-vi-IV-V chord progression from the 1954 doo-wop song “Earth Angel”?
If you think through what music your listener was likely exposed to as a child, you can easily figure out how to write to job their nostalgia response. But it’s important to remember that “nostalgia” can also be associated equally with sentiments of sadness and loneliness as it can joy and comfort. As a composer, this is where it becomes important to play with instrumentation, timbre, and tempo, in order to get the right balance.
Use scale degrees from early childhood.
The previous section dealt with music that we, as youngsters, opted to listen to. But you can achieve similar results with melodic and intervalic relationships culled from children’s music. Children’s music is often written so simplistically as to be memorable for life, so referencing those simple melodies is sure to bring an audience back to those early formative moments.
Let’s use my own childhood as an example. I heard a few too many nursery rhymes from my crib, like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Merrily We Roll Along.” Songs that focus on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd scale degrees, small intervalic jumps, feel more familiar, more comfortable, and more nostalgic, to me at least.
Take a look back at television shows that were geared towards young children throughout the decades and listen to their themes. I’m a ’90s kid myself, so I watched a lot of shows on PBS Kids, especially Arthur, and I watched a lot of Disney movies like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules. When songs and musical pieces mimic scale degrees from these shows and movies and focus on notes 1, 2, 3, and 5 in a scale, they bring me back to my childhood just a bit.
It turns out a lot of those Disney movies were scored by the same person, Alan Menken. Perhaps he was anticipating that this music would eventually lock inside his audience’s subconscious when he wrote it!
Whether used by accident or on purpose, it does tend to work. If you look closely at the melody of “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” by Fall Out Boy, you’ll notice it places the same amount of focus on those short scale intervals. The first vocal line even sounds like a nursery rhyme, with a see-saw-style melody: D-E-F#-E-D-E-F#-E-D.
Thinking about their target listener, Fall Out Boy was successfully able to balance an aesthetic of youthful rebellion with a sound that was immediately comforting. That’s one reason The Phoenix New Times said this song “might just be the most listened-to emo track of all time.”
Don’t forget about using instruments from childhood, too!
Creating musical nostalgia isn’t just about thinking tonally — timbre and instrument choice can be just as useful! Ask yourself, “What instruments would my audience have heard in music, TV shows, and movies when they were kids?”
Whether that means using “children’s instruments” like toy pianos, ukuleles, tambourines, etc., or instruments that look and sound retro, like jangly Rickenbacker guitars, these elements help paint a delicate picture of the sound world you’re trying to create. As another example, my parents played a lot of country when I was growing up. So whenever I hear pedal steel guitars and tight harmonies, the combination always brings me back to my childhood living room.
This principle has been used by composers like Adam Schlesinger, who wrote the title song from That Thing You Do!.
When the studio asked for a song that sounds like The Beatles, Schlesinger decided to use similar instruments, style, and production techniques from the time period. If anyone in their 40s or 50s walked into the theater to watch the film, they were immediately transported back to their youth. For those of us too young to have lived through the early 1960s, it’s likely that our parents introduced us to the music of The Beatles at some point so that we’d have our own developmental reference point as well.
This attention to detail only serves to dress the context that much closer so that we become invested in the drama with little to no restraint. We’re invited to take part in the world of the film’s fictional band, The Wonders.
Anne-Marie’s recent single “2002” paints a picture of the days when we were young by referencing pop songs from when she was 11. And if you’re about 27, you might listen to “2002” and feel that the song takes you back to the days when you were singing at the top of your lungs with your childhood friends as well.
If you want your music to touch your audience’s sense of nostalgia, you’ll need to know who your audience is, what they grew up on, and what kinds of sounds bring them comfort and joy. Huh… I guess it isn’t so far off from what Hans Zimmer was talking about after all!
So, who’s your Doris?
Don’t stop here!
Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, home recording and production, composing, beat making, and much more, with Soundfly’s artist-led courses, like: Jlin: Rhythm, Variation, & Vulnerability, RJD2: From Samples to Songs and Com Truise: Mid-Fi Synthwave Slow-Motion Funk.
Hunter Farris runs the Song Appeal podcast, which focuses on the psychology behind why we like the music we like. His podcast on music theory and music psychology has appealed broadly enough for Hunter to speak at Comic-Con 2018, and is instructive enough to be used as homework by a Music Theory professor. He currently teaches people to play piano by ear and make their own arrangements of other people’s music.