Yeah, OK, Now Tell Us Why

Sometimes science tells us things we already know. That’s good, because as “duh!” as those things sound, it’s good to have common experience backed up by rigorous study.

A similar thing popped up the other week. Most people, if their honest with themselves, will admit that their taste in music (popular music, at any rate) is inextricably linked to their youth. What you loved growing up is likely to stick with you. In other words, you eventually become your parents and think what the kids today listen to is noise and/or garbage (and possibly unAmerican!).

Seth Stevens-Davidowitz, writing in the New York Times (via), explains how he dove deep into the dataset that is Spotify. Using “data on how frequently every song is listened to by men and women of each particular age” he learned that:

The patterns were clear. Even though there is a recognized canon of rock music, there are big differences by birth year in how popular a song is.

Consider, for example, the song ‘Creep,’ by Radiohead. This is the 164th most popular song among men who are now 38 years old. But it is not in the top 300 for the cohort born 10 years earlier or 10 years later.

Note that they men who most like ‘Creep’ now were roughly 14 when the song came out in 1993. In fact, this is a consistent pattern.

He shows this over and over again with songs by artists as diverse as The Cure, Roy Orbison, and Van Morrison.

As I said, this isn’t much of a surprise. We all know people whose musical tastes calcified in 10th grade.

Even though I consider myself pretty open minded when it comes to music, I have to admit that my sweet spot, go to favorite kind of stuff, progressive rock, is what I first got hooked on when I was a kid. Sure, my horizons have expanded over the years (ironically, part of that includes rediscovering the pop music I shunned as a kid), but I most happily fall back into the arms of the Genesis, Yes, and Rush stuff I discovered when I was young.

Now that we have some deep data diving confirming this bit of common sense, the next hurdle is figuring out why this is the case. Stevens-Davidowitz’s survey doesn’t directly address that question, although he says in passing:

This also adds one more piece of evidence to the growing scientific consensus that we never really leave middle school and high school.

But why should that be the case? Peoples’ tastes change through their lives when it comes to other things. We eat different things, read different books, and watch different movies. What is it about music that ties it so tightly to adolescence? Maybe it’s because, for most people, that’s when music is most important to them and their identity. Music later in life tends to fade into the background (and not in an interesting way). Or maybe it’s pure nostalgia (although, again, not for other things?).

Either way, the answers lie beyond my range as a humble writer and lawyer. So get on it, science! Don’t just confirm what we know, tell us why!


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