3You're a Musically Conditioned Addict
In spite of its neural magnificence, your brain is, at its most basic level, a junkie. Whenever you do something good, your brain rewards itself by shooting up some dopamine and getting its fix. A great way for your brain to get blitzed off its ass is to listen to music. This continual rewarding is what encourages you to listen to more music.
So how does this relate to your preferences? Remember Pavlov and his dogs? Since classical conditioning can occur with any external stimulus, your brain can daisy chain something like music to a completely unrelated conditioned response. For example, a parking garage owner in Chicago patented a system where the elevator would play different songs at different floors, which helped customers remember where they had parked their cars. Likewise, how you're feeling when you hear a song can completely affect whether or not you like that song. This conditioning is so strong that once it is ingrained, your brain will actually start seeking out certain types of music so that it can manipulate itself into a desired emotional state.
"I LOVE laundry day! Thanks, ABBA!"
And just like freshmen college students in a coed dorm, this phenomenon can swing both ways; the music you're listening to can influence your mood as much as your mood influences your opinion of the music. If someone advertises a product with a song that you associate with being kicked in the nuts, then you're less likely to like that product, which is why music selection is such a huge part of marketing. More importantly, it means that you don't choose the emotional connection you get from your favorite songs; your subconscious uses memories, imagery, subverted associations with people you haven't thought of in years and straight up voodoo to create a musical imprint of the song.
And if that imprint is good, you'll go back for more. Your conscious self has zero say in the matter. Finally, we've explained how people can stand to listen to __________!*
*In the name of not offending any particular group of readers, feel free to insert an inexplicably popular artist of your choosing into the blank.
Tim Mosenfelder / Getty
What? This is just a totally random picture of music.
2Your Music Preferences Are Sealed by Adolescence
Imagine if everything you said, did or liked by age 18 was stuck with you forever. Your clothes, hairstyle and friends, and that stupid nickname you gave yourself -- all permanently tattooed on your adult self for the whole world to see and mock. How many of us would be walking around with lopsided Salt-n-Pepa hair and insisting that everyone call us "Spinderella Jr.?" It's not a pretty picture.
Fortunately, we mature. But there is one area where neuroscientist and music expert Daniel Levitin thinks we're permanently marked before we hit voting age: our music preferences.
Joe Raedle / Getty
Once again, don't look at us like that. It's just a totally random image of music and voting.
You already probably know that there are certain things that are much easier to learn as a kid than as an adult (like, say, a foreign language). There is a point when your brain gets a little more set in its ways. But when your brain is new and still developing, it's constantly creating new and different neural pathways to perform all the mental tasks that will be required of it throughout your life. So your parents' musical preferences, whatever is on the radio, the rinky-dinky songs your preschool teacher taught you -- anything is fair game to form the foundation that will be your musical taste. And your brain pays attention, developing neural pathways to recognize the music of your culture. At age 10, you start to bonk out the music that doesn't fit in with your recognizable scheme of "good" music. At age 12, you begin to use those newly formed tastes to figure out your place in the world ("You will know us by our SPIN DOCTORS T-shirts!"). By 14, for the most part, your musical preferences are a done deal.
As evidence, one music critic points to the biggest music icons of the past 50 years to bear this fact out. Both Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney were 14 when they were first exposed to Elvis, and both cited that exposure as the fuse that lit their world-changing careers. When the Beatles hit The Ed Sullivan Show, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel were all age 14, presumably watching it on TV.
Adam Rountree / Getty
Researchers are still trying to figure out what the hell Dee Snider accidentally watched.
Of course, these could be chalked up as fun coincidences used to illustrate a point. But think back on what you were listening to when you were 14 -- is it that much different from what you listen to now? Maybe a little more juvenile, maybe a little more Limp Bizkitty, but you probably haven't done a 180 and completely abandoned the genre of music you loved as a teen. If you were a hip-hop fan then, there's a good chance you still are one now.