The musical ages of modern man: How our taste in music changes over a lifetime

October 15, 2013

The explosion in music consumption over the last century has made 'what you listen to' an important personality construct – as well as the root of many social and cultural tribes – and, for many people, their self-perception is closely associated with musical preference. We would perhaps be reluctant to admit that our taste in music alters - softens even - as we get older.

Now, a new study suggests that - while our engagement with it may decline - music stays important to us as we get older, but the music we like adapts to the particular 'life challenges' we face at different stages of our lives.

It would seem that, unless you die before you get old, your taste in music will probably change to meet social and psychological needs.

One theory put forward by researchers, based on the study, is that we come to music to experiment with identity and define ourselves, and then use it as a social vehicle to establish our group and find a mate, and later as a more solitary expression of our intellect, status and greater emotional understanding.

Researchers say the study is the first to "comprehensively document" the ways people engage with music "from adolescence to middle age". The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Using data gathered from more than a quarter of a million people over a ten year period, researchers divided musical genres into five broad, "empirically derived" categories they call the MUSIC model - mellow, unpretentious, sophisticated, intense, contemporary - and plotted the patterns of preference across age-groups.

These five categories incorporate multiple genres that share common musical and psychological traits - such as loudness and complexity.

"The project started with a common conception that does not evolve after young adulthood. Most academic research to date supported this claim, but - based on other areas of psychological research and our own experiences - we were not convinced this was the case," said Arielle Bonneville-Roussy from Cambridge's Department of Psychology, who led the study.

The study found that, unsurprisingly, the first great musical age is adolescence - defined by a short, sharp burst of 'intense' and the start of a steady climb of 'contemporary'. 'Intense' music - such as punk and metal - peaks in adolescence and declines in early adulthood, while 'contemporary' music - such as pop and rap - begins a rise that plateaus until early middle age.

"Teenage years are often dominated by the need to establish identity, and music is a cheap, effective way to do this," said Dr Jason Rentfrow, senior researcher on the study.

"Adolescents' quest for independence often takes the shape of a juxtaposed stance to the perceived 'status quo', that of parents and the establishment. 'Intense' music, seen as aggressive, tense and characterised by loud, distorted sounds has the rebellious connotations that allow to stake a claim for the autonomy that is one of this period's key 'life challenges'."

As 'intense' gives way to the rising tide of 'contemporary' and introduction of 'mellow' – such as electronic and R & B – in early adulthood, the next musical age emerges. These two "preference dimensions" are considered "romantic, emotionally positive and danceable," write the researchers.

"Once people overcome the need for autonomy, the next 'life challenge' concerns finding love and being loved – people who appreciate this 'you' that has emerged," said Rentfrow.

"What we took away from the results is that these forms of music reinforce the desire for intimacy and complement settings where people come together with the goal of establishing close relationships – parties, bars, clubs and so on.

"Whereas the first musical age is about asserting independence, the next appears to be more about gaining acceptance from others."

As we settle down and middle age begins to creep in, the last musical age, as identified by the researchers, is dominated by 'sophisticated' – such as jazz and classical – and 'unpretentious' – such as country, folk and blues.

Researchers write that both these dimensions are seen as "positive and relaxing" - with 'sophisticated' indicating the complex aesthetic of high culture that could be linked to social status and perceived intellect, while 'unpretentious' echoes sentiments of family, love and loss – emotionally direct music that speaks to the experiences most will have had by this life stage.

"As we settle into ourselves and acquire more resources to express ourselves – career, home, family, car – music remains an extension of this, and at this stage there are aspects of wanting to promote , intellect and wealth that play into the increased gravitation towards 'sophisticated' music," said Rentfrow, "as social standing is seen as a key 'life challenge' to be achieved by this point".

"At the same time, for many this life stage is frequently exhausted by work and family, and there is a requirement for relaxing, emotive music for those rare down times that reflects the other major 'life challenge' of this stage – that of nurturing a family and maintaining long-term relationships, perhaps the hardest of all."

Adds Bonneville-Roussy: "Due to our very large sample size, gathered from online forms and social media channels, we were able to find very robust age trends in musical taste. I find it fascinating to see how seemingly trivial behaviour such as listening relates to so many psychological aspects, such as personality and age."

Explore further: Study finds musical agency reduces perceived exertion while working out

Related Stories

Study finds musical agency reduces perceived exertion while working out

October 15, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers from Belgium and Germany has found that musical agency (the ability to control musical characteristics with physical movements) causes people to perceive their level of effort as lower ...

This is your brain on Vivaldi and Beatles

August 7, 2013
Listening to music activates large networks in the brain, but different kinds of music are processed differently. A team of researchers from Finland, Denmark and the UK has developed a new method for studying music processing ...

Why do we enjoy listening to sad music?

July 11, 2013
Sad music might actually evoke positive emotions reveals a new study by Japanese researchers published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology. The findings help to explain why people enjoy listening to sad music, ...

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

vlaaing peerd
not rated yet Oct 28, 2013
Though I feel this research is in many ways on the right track they fail to address a simple fact; music isn't always used as an extension and reflection of someone's personality and social status.

Sometimes you can just like music because it has a nice tune to it, independent of if it happens to be identity confirming, socially acceptable or defining sophistication.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.