Did your ex permanently ruin a song for you? Blame your brain

By Jessica Roy

We asked, you answered. (Swetha Kannan / Los Angeles Times)

You're sitting on the freeway, minding your own business, when a familiar song starts to play. Maybe you don't even realize it at first. It takes a few seconds to register what you're hearing. Then, suddenly, you're overwhelmed, feelings stirring up that you thought were firmly in your emotional rearview mirror.

For Valentine's Day, we asked our readers: What song did an ex ruin for you? In other words, what's a song you can't hear without thinking of someone from your past? (Read on to see some of the best responses and listen to our Spotify playlist.)

Songs have the power to bring us back to other times and places. To understand why, you need to know a bit about what music does to your brain chemistry. A good person to ask is Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and former record producer who wrote the book "This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession."

We form memories when circuits activate in our brain. When we recall those memories, some of those circuits reactivate, "putting you back in literally the same electrochemical state you were in" at that time, Levitin said. In any song, "there's melody, and rhythm, there's the sound of the instruments … it's a very rich multi-parametric stimulus," Levitin said. "Any one of those elements could trigger a memory, and the total of the elements creates a powerful trigger."

One of the readers who responded with their own breakup story said any time they heard the opening chords of "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" by the Postal Service, it reflexively brought tears to their eyes. Another reader said hearing Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" or Adele's "Someone Like You" instantly reminded them of not only the stress of the breakup's aftermath, but the feeling of their heart racing and the smell of the inside of the car they drove when they used to hear those songs on the radio.

That's a totally normal response, Levitin said: "We are multimodal creatures. We don't just see things. We see and hear and smell and touch and feel." Our experiences are linked to different senses, and by extension, so are our memories.

"Somebody That I Used to Know" came up multiple times in entries from readers. There's no such thing as a song having intrinsic musical "breakup energy," Levitin said, but certain things about them can make them more likely to trigger our emotions. The song's unusual instrumental arrangement, hard-hitting hook and haunting lyrics made it a hit — and a breakup anthem. (François Tétaz, who mixed the song for Gotye, said he was inspired by Levitin's book.)

The song was inescapable by summer 2012. You heard "Somebody That I Used to Know" on the radio, in playlists, at restaurants, in the doctor's office, in the elevator. When songs become background music like that, Levitin said, they become associated in your hippocampus — the memory structure of the brain — with that particular period of time.

The neuroscientist made a musical prediction: Anyone who goes through a breakup in early 2019 will have a similar association with "Thank U, Next."

We asked you, our readers, to tell us what song makes you feel bittersweet. Here's what you told us. Enjoy all the songs here on our Spotify playlist.


By Arctic Monkeys

“He ruined literally everything I listen to. He's a musician (drummer mostly) and music was a huge part of the relationship, therefore ruining entire bands and albums and playlists. By far, the most ruined was '505' by Arctic Monkeys. It's a good song, it objectively slaps. It's also his favorite band. But we listened to it nonstop while we were on and off toward the end. So it reminds me of sneaking around with him and us lying to our friends and family about it because we didn't want them to know how dumb and dysfunctional we were for doing so.” — Aida Chavez

“Almost Lover”

By A Fine Frenzy

“A new and beautiful start was cut short by nerves and internalized homophobia. Now I can only remember the moment when we fell just a bit short. The worst thing about it is that she wanted to continue to be my friend afterward. I just wanted to stop hurting, so this song reminds me about the moments when I simply just couldn't do that. The song just hits too close to home.” — Missy

“Always On My Mind”

By Willie Nelson

“I wasn't on his mind when he was out having fun elsewhere, if you catch my drift!” — Lisa

“Better Together”

By Jack Johnson

“He and I were engaged, and 'Better Together' was our song. We were both religious at the time, and our religion required parental consent from all living parents before marriage. My mom initially gave permission, but retracted it after she got a feeling it wasn’t right. He and I split up shortly after. A few years ago, he came out of the closet. Now, we are good friends, and can laugh about it all. The song reminds me of the bullet he and I dodged, and I think it will probably always be that way.” — Jaclyn Steele

“Carnival Town”

By Norah Jones

“It wasn't an ex of mine, just a guy I really liked in freshman year of college who didn't like me back. In the Michigan wintertime I'd be all sad walking to the bus and daydreaming about him, while listening to this song. So now listening back to it, I just get those feelings of hopelessness, unrequited love, and winter.” — Michelle

“Come Away With Me”

By Norah Jones

“This song was chosen, after a ton of negotiations, as our wedding song. This CD was playing the first night we officially went out for a real date, and we saw Norah Jones in concert in the year before the wedding. The marriage only lasted one year, and I can't hear this song without shaking my head and wanting to go on a long walk to forget.” — K. D. Knox

“Feels Like Home”

By Chantal Kreviazuk

“I loved the words and melody of this gorgeous song. So much so that I used it as my first dance song with my ex-husband, who turned out to be a disgusting creep. Now I can't listen without remembering that, and a beautiful song is ruined. Words of advice: Pick a mediocre song for your first dance.” — Lisa Gibson

“Green Light”

By Lorde

“I had a crush on a friend for a very long time. We had a heated debate about this song the only night we ever went further than being just friends. We also danced to it at a party later in the evening.

He immediately started dating someone else after and he slightly ruined the 'Melodrama' album for me with his critique.” — Laura Lindner

“Hannah Hunt”

By Vampire Weekend

“We dated long distance – I'm in Baltimore, he's in L.A. – and listened to it the first time I visited him, when we decided after an argument that we were willing to put in the work despite the distance. I later found out that he had a serious girlfriend when we'd started dating, then broke up with her and met (and impregnated) a second girlfriend halfway through our relationship. He ruined one of Vampire Weekend's greatest songs for me.” — Kristen Nicholes


By David Bowie

“We were both huge Bowie fans. It didn't work out between us for various reasons – partly because I moved to L.A., largely (ahem) because he was in love with someone else, though he said he had misgivings about pursuing the relationship. He knew 'Heroes' was my favorite Bowie song.

One night – when he knew I was dating someone new, but the pain of our breakup was still recent and the feelings still lingering – he sent me a text saying this particular song reminded him of us – a song that's rather famously about lovers facing impossible odds (but also about an extramarital affair). Anyway. He's marrying that other girl, who apparently was everything he wanted after all.

My favorite Bowie song is now 'Young Americans.'” — Caitlin

“Hey Ho”

By The Lumineers

“My ex declared this 'our song,' primarily because he lived in Chinatown near Canal, and I guess also because I sometimes took the university bus (to my dorm, not his apartment). Unfortunately, after he declared it 'our song,' his very territorial ex posted on his Facebook wall, 'I see you're listening to The Lumineers a lot – aren't you glad I told you about them?' That ruined the song for me immediately and I never told him.

After three years of secretly cringing every time he'd turn up the volume when it was on the radio, I can now openly dislike it. Hey! Ho! — Chelsea


By Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes

“My first love dedicated this song to me the first time we broke up as a means to get back with me. He said he thought of me, he said I was 'Home' for him. He came from a broken household and I thought and believed what he said and went back, despite his possessiveness and jealousy. Two months later he started college and dumped me.

It’s not that I hate this song, I love it; it just gives me a sinking feeling of despair, the same way I felt the last few days of the relationship.” — Chase Arevalo

“I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight”

By Richard & Linda Thompson

“I remember discovering and showing my ex this song about a year into our relationship. It served as a fitting soundtrack for a good portion of our dates, because if it wasn’t blasting from my car’s stereo I had the song playing in my head. I can’t listen to it now because it brings to mind all of the nights we spent holding each other close and driving around town, and it makes me me feel nostalgic for the person I’m trying so hard to forget about.” — Jake

“I Will Survive”

By Gloria Gaynor

“That song has probably been played at every gay pride parade for the last quarter century. I had this girlfriend I really loved, who sang it in her a capella group. She sang the hell out of it, but I never ever want to hear that song at a pride parade, karaoke bar or disco skate again.” — Winter

“I Write the Songs That Make the Whole Word Cry”

By Barry Manilow

“He insisted I go to three Barry Manilow concerts with him. He would listen to his music incessantly on the way to and from the concerts and for months afterwards. Every time I hear this song I picture him doing his awkward dance, singing along.” — Elizabeth Kollios

“If I Didn't Know Better”

By The Civil Wars

“I was introduced to the song by a woman I met while celebrating newfound relationship freedom. She told me she traveled for work a lot, and we would get together at my place or a hotel every few weeks. At the end of every single night, she would play this song. I laughed at our drunken role playing as we screeched the lyrics late at night or early in the morning.

Until I received a call from her husband. She wasn't role playing at all. She had a lover at home. An entire family, in fact. I still have not forgiven her to this day. I don't know if it's because I was a pawn in ruining people's lives or if it's because I was duped. But every time I hear this song, I think about her, and her and I singing it together.” — Shaun Murray

“In Dreams”

By Roy Orbison

“In Dreams' by Roy Orbison. It’s such a beautiful ballad, too. I hope one day I can play it maybe backwards on a turntable and enjoy it again.” — Jessica Pilot

“Kiss Me”

By Ed Sheeran

“Unfortunately, this lovely song reminds me of my first kiss. I wanted my first kiss to be memorable. Thinking that I was cool, I paused the steamy makeout sesh to accomplish my goal by busting out my phone and playing that song on repeat. Needless to say, I can now barely listen to the first five seconds.” — Ann

“Love on the Weekend”

By John Mayer

“He used to say this was our song, because we didn’t get to see each other much during the week, and he would always drive to my apartment on Friday nights. The lyrics are something to that effect. I guess it didn’t matter to him that I’m not a John Mayer fan.

Honestly, I would say it’s less that he ruined the song for me, and more that he freed me from ever having to listen to it again.” — Sarah Lance


By Jason Mraz and Colbie Caillat

“It was our go-to karaoke song. It was my childhood love and we swore we would be together forever. Then life got in the way and essentially forced us apart. After I broke up with him, he found comfort in my best friend and they dated for years. It was betrayal at its finest and honestly, the song is ruined. 'Lucky I'm in love with my best friend' – more like 'Lucky, I tricked you with your best friend.'

All is well now and I wish them both the best, individually. But as far as the song – I cringe every time.” — Marangeli Lopez

“Mr. Brightside”

By The Killers

“My girlfriend and I jammed to the whole album, but this song especially. It ended poorly. Now I just get pissed off every time I hear The Killers. Wish I could like them again and still dislike her.” — Robert Lewis

“Passenger Seat”

By Death Cab for Cutie

“It was my favorite Death Cab song, and it was also one of his. Most of our fondest memories happened while I rode beside him as he drove — in his car, we recorded a half-drunken podcast late at night, did the stupid 36 Questions thing, and ate breakfast before sunrise. A few weeks later, in that same seat, he told me he started seeing someone else. I never want to be in that seat again.” — Ken R.


By Dee Clark

“As a teenager in rock'n'roll's early years, I was a big fan of Dee Clark. His signature hit, 'Raindrops,' enthralled me at first listen. Even after it peaked at No. 2 nationally in 1961, it remained an all-time favorite of mine for two decades.

Then one memorable night I brought my vinyl recording of that tune to the home of a new flame. She, too, liked 'Raindrops,' and let me to play it time and again. The dreamy magic of that night together heightened the pleasure I derived from hearing 'Raindrops' – but only for another two weeks. Then reality came crashing down. I caught her in a blatant lie, one that confirmed she was using me to advance her career.

Since then I haven't spoken to her. Nor have I played my recording of 'Raindrops.' But in recent years I've allowed Clark's big hit to play on satellite radio, never mentioning to my current partner – a huge oldies fan herself – the emotional dissonance it evokes.” — Ed Alston

“Run Away With Me”

By Carly Rae Jepsen

“This was the song that encapsulated my last relationship. It reminded us of the spontaneous things we would do, of how every day felt like a new adventure. My boyfriend, who resided in Huntington Beach at the time, once gave me a note that said, 'I love you more than you love 'Run Away With Me,' which I put in my day planner as motivation before every big meeting or interview.

Unfortunately, he ghosted me while I was in the hospital. While I haven't heard from him in more than two years, I threw away the note because I kept getting misty-eyed when I opened my planner. If I hear any Carly Rae Jepsen song, no matter how ebullient the lyrics, I start crying, even if I'm in a crowded coffee shop. But it is particularly this song that makes me cry, not only because of the connection to my ex, but because of the lyrics: 'Every single minute / I'll be your hero and win it.' — Monica Reida


By The Kooks

“I went to an all-girls school here in L.A. I didn't know many boys, and didn't date until a mutual friend asked me out for Valentine's Day. He wanted to know my favorite song ahead of time so he could play it in the car when he picked me up to take me to the pier. I told him it was 'Seaside' by The Kooks, because I thought it was beautiful and romantic and we were going to the beach.

Now I can't listen to it without feeling like a teenager again: on her first real date, legs swung over the side of the dock, sharing a funnel cake with a boy who we both knew was gay, wanting so badly to be the girl getting wooed in that song.” — Caitie Karasik


By Future Islands

“I went through a somewhat brief but incredibly intense relationship a couple years ago. It began before Future Islands had their brief success but definitely outlasted their time in the spotlight. She introduced me to the song before it was really heard anywhere, at the start of our relationship, and it seemed like as the relationship grew, so did their success. I bought her the vinyl, I felt cool for introducing others to them before they hit it big-ish, and much of the early weeks of our relationship were spent listening to the entire album on her cheap turntable.

Then, as things do, the relationship fell apart. I remember she had just left me about twenty minutes before Future Islands appeared on one of the late-night shows. I remember it happening, though, because hearing the first few chords of 'Seasons' resulted in my throwing a rocks glass through the front of my TV.

The next time I got in my car, that was the first song that played. When I connected my iPhone to charge through the car, of course, that song started playing. When I switched over to radio, there it was again.

It's still somewhere in my playlist, despite countless attempts to banish it, and to this day, when I hear those first few chords, I get physically ill and spend the rest of the day in a funk. Nothing against Future Islands, but I would be perfectly happy going to the grave without ever hearing their music again.” — Chad Kiser


By Chromatics

“We broke up two days after Chromatics released 'Shadow' from their forthcoming yet still MIA album, 'Dear Tommy.' It's a great song, but I can't listen to it without remembering the night when I confessed to my ex that I was worried about our financial lifestyles not being compatible — she worked for a major health company while I was a budding freelance writer — and how my ex was not only unsympathetic, but spooked.

To this day, I still can't listen to that song without thinking about how pathetic I felt that night.” — Miles

“Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”

By John Mayer

“One time, lovingly, my now-ex said 'Slow Dancing in a Burning Room' by John Mayer reminded him of me. To me, it became 'our song.' Oh my god, have you ever actually listened to the lyrics? Because somehow I heard them differently until we broke up, when I thought, 'Wow, this was one giant red flag.' I cannot hear it now without laughing because it was so obvious that there were some major underlying issues in our relationship.

When a partner says a song that includes the word 'doomed' reminds them of you, get out while you can.” — Alexa D'Angelo

“Somebody That I Used to Know”

By Gotye

“That song hit the radio in L.A. right as things with my ex were taking a turn for the worse. We were living together in Hollywood while I was finishing grad school at UCLA.

Almost every day on the way home, I'd hear that song on the radio, and I'd daydream about my life without him in it. I imagined being broken up and him being someone I used to know. And it always made me happy thinking about that. After hearing it enough times, and having enough fights, I graduated, stopped doing that commute, we finally split up and he moved out in July of that year. I started a new job downtown and began commuting by Red Line and stopped listening to the radio. So, right after we broke up I stopped hearing that song

Now, when I hear it again on the radio, I think about those drives home from UCLA, down Sunset Boulevard, and I think that song actually helped me get ready to break up with him. I can't hear it without being completely overcome by those memories.” — Kate

“Somebody To Love”

By Queen

“My ex was a huge fan of Queen, so generally most of their songs are sadly kind of ruined for me. But 'Somebody To Love' is the one that still really hurts to hear, even almost 3 years after the breakup. He said that 'Somebody To Love' always made him think of me. Apparently, a couple weeks before he and I met, he performed it at this karaoke thing. He was feeling lonely at the time, single, and just really wanted the right person to come along and start a relationship. Fast forward a couple weeks and then I appear. He said it was like his wish had come true. During our relationship he would sometimes (somewhat off-key) sing this to me. I found it adorable at the time. And then, when he’d finish singing, he’d say, 'Now I found my somebody to love.' I’ve been working on reclaiming that song and the rest of Queen’s discography.” — Andrea

“Someone Like You”

By Adele

“Let me tell you about the worst time in musical history to end a relationship: Summer of 2011. I ended a 2-year-long tumultuous relationship at the same exact time that Adele released 'Someone Like You' and Gotye dropped 'Somebody That I Used to Know.' Both songs are about heart-wrenching breakups and post-breakup life with emotional overtones and relatable yet depressing lyrics.

Living in L.A. at the time, I listened to Top 40 radio stations during my commute. It almost became hazardous to drive with the radio on. The 405 Freeway is scary enough when you're not ugly-crying behind the wheel. It took me a good two years before I listened to Top 40 radio or wore mascara before my drive into work.

Listening to them now is like breakup PTSD. I can almost smell the interior of my old Nissan Versa as my heart races and I shake my fist to the sky while blaspheming my ex's name. You ruined Adele for me, David!” — Laura Gorman

“Sometime Around Midnight”

By Airborne Toxic Event

“I'm not sure 'ruined' is the right word, because I never cared for it to begin with. But considering the song conjures up imagery of a person seeing his ex with another person at a bar, and that I heard it for the first time within weeks of founding out I had been cheated on with someone she had met at a bar, it's impossible to hear this song without bringing back all the anger, depression, and sorrow I felt at the time. Some songs make you feel a depth of emotion because of their evocative nature. This song just triggers a visceral need to hit 'skip.'” — Scott Kelley

“Sunset Lover”

By Petit Biscuit

“That was his morning alarm ringtone. I woke up to the sound of that song for 8 months. After we broke up, there was a day I decided to use the radio feature on Spotify, and all of a sudden that song started blasting on my speaker. I started bawling my eyes out. Never listening to Petit Biscuit again.” — Ivana

“The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”

By The Postal Service

“He used to play it all the time when we were together and even put it on a mix CD for me. For a good year after we broke up, I could just hear those opening keyboard chords and start crying. Not even emotional crying, just reflexive watering of the eyes.” — Patrick G.

“Wild World”

By Cat Stevens

“My ex and I used to play shuffleboard with a group of friends at a bar called Stober's in Lansing, Michigan. One of us would play this song on the jukebox every week. Sometimes we'd put it on more than once — it is a very good song. I heard the song shortly after we broke up and it had definitely taken on a new meaning because the lyrics suddenly applied to me (and him).

I wouldn't say the song has been ruined for me — when I hear it, I get sentimental for those days: I no longer see any of those old friends, I moved out of Lansing some time ago, and I haven't played shuffleboard in years. I take a moment to remember those days when 'Wild World' comes on. To me, Cat Stevens' words are a pleasant, nostalgic affirmation of a past breakup.” — Sara

“Wouldn't It Be Nice”

By The Beach Boys

“My high school sweetheart passed away of cancer at a young age. This was our song.” — Anonymous

Additional credits: Production by Kelcie Pegher