When you were in high school or college, what did your parents think of the music you loved? While there are exceptions, statistically speaking, it’s likely they didn’t enjoy it. From disco to rock, the Greatest Generation frequently dismissed the hits of the day as “just a bunch of noise.”
Now quick, what do you think of current popular music? If your kneejerk answer is that it’s “just a bunch of noise,” you might want to consider what Frank T. McAndrew has to say in The Conversation. McAndrew argues that there are a number of reasons why, as we age, our musical tastes tend to get encased in amber—and none of his theories involve a sudden downtick in the quality of contemporary music.
Instead, McAndrew points to an article suggesting that our sonic likes and dislikes mostly solidify in our early teen years, with another bump of influential time in our early twenties. This period in our college years, however, is “only half as influential.”
McAndrew discusses several reasons for why we build our musical foundations so young. One factor is that we simply have more time to expose ourselves to music earlier in our lives, before the full suite of adult obligations take over. Another is that we connect to music on the basis of our emotions, and teenage emotions are simply more intense.
There’s another possible factor feeding into this strange early fossilizing of taste, one which McAndrew mentions. Research cited in a Vice article posits that as we age, we gradually lose our ability to discern subtle differences in chords, rhythms, and melody, leading to a much more monotonous listening experience. To an older person’s ears, newer music could indeed sound like mere noise.
For whatever reason, a Spotify study shows that most of us stop taking in new music by the time we’re only 33. This may be somewhat disconcerting news, but luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way. As with virtually anything else, the key to keeping fresh may come down to practice.
"If you listen to a lot of music and think musically you can actually strengthen your neural responses to music," says Christopher Plack, co-writer and co-researcher of Losing the Music: Aging Affects the Perception and Subcortical Neural Representation of Musical Harmony. "So the more you listen to music, the more responsive your neurons become."
Considering the power of music therapy for dementia patients, you might want to start training your brain now, while you’re still in your prime. Your brain will thank you.