5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed

#2. Your 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.

#1. The Music Industry Has Pop Down to a Bland, Loud Formula

Isaac Brekken / Getty

We would never try to make a judgment call about the quality of modern music -- we're not that old (yet). But the fact is that pop music has grown more and more homogenized over the last 50 years, and there's science to prove it. There's even a graph.

Nick Harvey / Getty
There's also this.

The Million Song Dataset uses algorithms to analyze pop songs recorded since 1955. The music bot evaluates songs based on things like loudness, note diversity, chord progression and tempo. What Musical Johnny 5 discovered was that musicians today are copycats, and they're sounding more and more alike every year. Once you break down individual elements, a pattern emerges. Even though the data set is examining a variety of pop genres, such as rock, hip-hop and metal, the trend is very clear: less variety, more loudness. Just as your grandparents suspected. In fact, researchers have concluded that modern listeners have now been trained to associate loudness with novelty:

"Hence, an old tune with slightly simpler chord progressions, new instrument sonorities that were in agreement with current tendencies, and recorded with modern techniques that allowed for increased loudness levels could be easily perceived as novel, fashionable and groundbreaking."

That's right; they think we're so stupid that we won't recognize an oldie if it's updated and loud enough. And do you know who was the king of creativity in the music department? The baby boomers. The same generation that gave us yuppies, the Social Security crisis and polyester pantsuits were once on the forefront of musical creativity, and no one has topped them since. Here's the aforementioned chart, which shows "timbral variety," or diversity of sounds present in pop songs since 1955:

Discover Magazine
"This has never happened before, we swear!"

Those outliers are probably punk, rap and David Byrne just existing in a room somewhere. So think about 1950s music for a minute. You might imagine guys in matching suits, harmonizing and swaying softly while poodle-skirted girls hula hoop in the background and Sputnik yo-yos. Dick Clark might be in the mix somewhere, depending on how much imagination you have. But according to analysis produced by the Million Song Dataset, that white bread music was still more imaginative than whatever you're hearing on the radio or streaming now. The only difference is that your music is probably louder. Once pop reached its zenith in the 1960s, when musicians were literally using bell bottoms, cannabis and face paint as instruments, music slowly got less diverse.

Now remember what we said about how your musical tastes are locked in early; if this is what you were raised on, it's what you'll keep looking for the rest of your life -- anything outside of that narrow range of sounds seems weird or wrong. It's kind of hard to branch out and be experimental when your audience has been trained over the course of a generation to only recognize certain sounds as being "good." They don't have bad taste; they're just slaves to biology. But at least that explains the success of __________!


Chris writes for his website and tweets. You can contact him at raddystuition@gmail.com. You can find Kristi on Twitter and Tumblr.

For more mysteries science has sucked the fun out of, check out 7 Famous 'Unsolved' Mysteries (Science Solved Years Ago). Or discover 6 Reasons Assholes Are Healthier (According to Science).

If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out The 6 Types of People Who Tweet Directly to the Candidates.

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