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We Asked an Expert Why We Stay Obsessed with Music From Our Teens

After a New York Times report confirmed that we solidify our music taste in adolescence, we spoke to someone who could explain why.

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19 February 2018, 11:20am

Lead image via YouTube

Okay, pause for one second. Scroll through some recently played music on your phone or laptop or whatever you use. Here’s what it says on my iPhone: Be Your Own Pet. Bloc Party. My Chemical Romance. CKY (lol, remember them?). Klaxons. Weezer. We Are Scientists. You get the idea. So what do all these artists have in common other than the fact they make me look like a starter-pack normie with no fixed identity? They all released music in the 2000s, which was when I was a young teenager. And what does this have to do with your music taste? Let me explain.

Last week, the New York Times ran a piece titled The Songs That Bind, in which writer Seth Stephens-Davidowitz collated data to explain what he saw as a music taste generational gap (inspired by how Seth and his brother couldn’t agree on whether or not Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” is a banger). After analysing Spotify trends, he noticed that the popularity of certain songs correlated to the age groups who first heard it when they were teenagers. “Creep” by Radiohead, for example, is most popular among men who are around 38 years old today.

“The most important period for men in forming their adult tastes were ages 13 to 16,” he wrote, adding that “the most important period for women were ages 11 to 14.” In other words, adults don’t really get heavily into new music, which probably explains why all my mates are overgrown emos who still stan Gerard Way. There is, however, a little deviation from this in our 20s. “For both men and women, their early 20s were half as influential in determining adult musical tastes as their early teens,” Stephens-Davidowitz explained. So far, so simple.

What this data didn’t really go into, though, is why. It’s all well and good knowing that yes, your suspicions are correct, your bf still hasn’t gotten over the time Pete Doherty robbed Carl Barât's flat and their friendship was never the same again, but we need answers. At 25 years old, I feel pretty open to the experiences around me, perhaps even more so than when I was 15, so why is my brain apparently cemented shut when it comes to music? I rang up Dr Stephanie Burnett Heyes – a psychology lecturer and British Academy postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Birmingham – to find out more.

Noisey: Hi Stephanie! So, why are adults primarily obsessed with music from their teen years?
Dr Stephanie Burnett Heyes: Adolescence is a “social sensitive” period, which means it’s a period of life when you’re receptive to other people and ideas – more receptive than later on – so those interactions and ideas tend to stick. In terms of scientific evidence for this, it’s really difficult to collect, but it’s an idea that’s been proposed in the last couple of years in the field of psychology. It’s something we’re still trying to investigate.

Another reason has to do with the brain and what’s called “functional brain activity” – and these ideas aren’t mutually exclusive to the social ones. When adolescents are processing stimulating reward activities – which can be anything from money to sugar to someone you respect liking you back – they seem to be more responsive than older and younger people, and that seems to respond to their activity.

So does that mean the deeper we love something the more likely it is to stick with us later?
It doesn’t necessarily follow, but it could be a combination of these forces.

Why do you think the tastes of those assigned male at birth are formed later than those assigned female at birth?
Anything that is a year later for boys than for girls points straight away to puberty. We know that puberty hormones don’t just affect our bodies and reproductive organs – they affect our brains. It affects how you perceive and interact with people. That seems the obvious first hypothesis. I’d be interested to see whether those who go through puberty later like music from when they were 16 rather than 14.

And why do you think there’s this additional spike in our early twenties when it comes to music taste?
I would like to see whether this spike varies in terms of whether they went to university, when they left home, their socio-economic status etc. Because it could be something about going to a new place and meeting new people and being surrounded by new ideas. But it could also be another brain mechanism. It would need more data.

Do you think our tastes are formed in other ways in our teen years? Like, not just the music we like, but the films, our fashion sense…
Music seems like a paradigmatic one, doesn’t it? The others aren’t as clear cut. Fashion’s quite expensive for a teenager, for example, so there are other things going on. Another obvious thing to explore, though, would be spiritual beliefs and attitudes. Ideological preferences might be formed in your teenage years because it’s a time when you might be more open to spiritual and religious ideas, that sort of thing.

This has all been really interesting. Thanks Stephanie!

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