Zelda, Music, and Second-Hand Nostalgia

Connecting music, memory, and games never played

Zelda, Music, and Second-Hand Nostalgia
Source: Nintendo.

Every time I hear a track like “Life in the Ruins” or “Fi’s Gratitude”, I get a little pang in my tummy. It's a nostalgia filled with cobbled-together “memories” like the feel of the buttons on a controller, the warmth of the sun streaming through an open window, and the crisp scent of the early morning breeze. But never an image of a screen.

In my head is an idea of the Legend of Zelda games. I’ll envision Link on his often wistful adventures, the places and characters he meets, but never actual gameplay.
This is probably because I’ve never played a Zelda game in my life.

Must be the music right?

From the hit of dopamine music creates, to the positive effects it has on memory recall in people who suffer from dementia, there have been many studies on music and how it works on our brains. Video game music is some of the best music to play in the background whether it’s for motivation, focus, or relaxation. There are usually no words to distract you and if there are any you probably can’t understand it.

There’s even a study for video game music, ludomusicology.

Music and nostalgia seem to go hand in hand. The brain likes to make connections between what we’re listening to and what we’re experiencing, which gets filed away in our memory. Many of us grew up with video games. Whether you were watching your Dad play Resident Evil or playing Minecraft with your friends way past your bedtime on a school night, the music you were listening to became the background music of your life at that moment.

The music adds to your immersion and focus. When you play a game like Bloodborne and have to fight the same boss seven times, you’re listening to the same piece of music seven times, and oh how glorious it is when you finally beat them. Now every time you hear that piece, you think of the sweetness of victory and the frustration it took to get it.

Then you have the “reminiscence bump”. Multiple studies have shown that older adults tend to recall memories from their developing years (from 10-30 years old according to the studies) better than any of their other memories. It aligns with the studies on music and dementia where certain pieces of music from a patient’s past could help them remember a certain event or place and time.

Now I’m not quite an older adult, but the “reminiscence bump” has been observed in younger adults, especially when it comes to media that was shared by older family members. With the internet though, much of the music I grew up with was found through places like Youtube, especially when it comes to video game music. So why am I having nostalgic memories of playing a Zelda game if I’ve never played one?

Source: Nintendo.

Maybe it’s Second-Hand Nostalgia

I don’t think we defined what nostalgia is. Merriam-Webster defines it as:

  1. A wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for a return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition

2. The state of being homesick: homesickness

It sounds a little depressing and for a time it was thought to be a negative experience until researchers started to take a closer look and found that it can improve mood and social connectedness, and even motivate people to preserve their cultural heritage. Of course, it can easily lead to bad ends and is often used in propaganda. Marketers also like to use nostalgia as it’s easier to market something familiar than something new. And with how bleak and overwhelming everything feels, nostalgia has a strong cultural hold on America (not sure about other countries).

So what is second-hand nostalgia? I couldn’t find an “official” description for it but I’ll use the definition retrobeliever uses: Nostalgia related to something that was not directly experienced, but known about during the time period that thing was relevant or contemporaneous.

I’m using the second-hand instead of the third-hand because Legend of Zelda remains relevant and my nostalgia for the music doesn’t stop at a certain game.

Over the years, I’ve spent time in YouTube comments under compilations of Zelda music, reading the memories, theories, and debates about the Zelda games. And of course, I’ve soaked in tons of Zelda fan work, from art to cosplay. Am I associating the images and music from Zelda with the version of me that was content (and had time) to browse around on the web for hours? Or is this nostalgia for Zelda a projection of what I imagine life would have been like, a fabrication based on the experiences of hundreds of thousands of people I’ll never know?

It’s a concept that sounds similar to the term that The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows coined, anemoia: nostalgia for a time you’ve never known. Think of the nostalgia some people born in the 2000s felt when they listened to Japanese pop from the '80s.

I couldn’t find any studies on secondhand nostalgia except the “reminiscence bump” studies that involved young adults. There may be more research on it in the future as the internet expands on what people feel nostalgic for. The internet allows us to encounter media and culture that we wouldn’t have known otherwise and it wouldn’t be surprising if more people experience a sort of secondhand or even third-hand nostalgia.

Source: Nintendo.

Is it actually nostalgia?

Maybe nostalgia isn’t the right description for what I experience when listening to Zelda music. Even though I do have positive associations with the music that seems to recall a time when I wasn’t as stressed and depressed, the “memories” are too vague. There’s not one “memory” that I can describe when it comes to gaming. What I can describe are the memories I have going down Zelda-related rabbit holes, listening to Zelda study playlists while reading and baking. Relatively mundane things that I’ve done many times over.

I’ll still get wistful and teary-eyed when listening to an orchestral tribute to Zelda, even if it isn’t really nostalgia. The music itself is good enough to make me want to go on an adventure or think about a time that I’ve never known.


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