Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
While Gen X-ers in their late 30s and 40s may think of the latest Pearl Jam record as a great rock ‘n’ roll album, Millennials might see it as a collection of ‘Dad Rock’ songs made to appeal to an older generation.
A new study from psychologists at the University of Cambridge has tracked musical tastes across the generations and found that while music stays important to us throughout our life – our tastes adapt to the particular challenges being faced at different stages of our personal evolution.
The UK researchers said people initially come to music during adolescence to look for an identity and later use it to establish a social group and find a mate. The oldest among us tend to see music as a solitary expression of personal intellect, status and a greater emotional understanding.
“The project started with a common conception that musical taste does not evolve after young adulthood,” said Arielle Bonneville-Roussy from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, who led the study. “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.”
Using data from two large cross-sectional studies involving more than a quarter-of-a-million people over a ten year period, the UK team divided musical genres into five expansive, “empirically derived” categories: mellow, unpretentious, sophisticated, intense and contemporary. The data defined by these categories were plotted across various age-groups. The results were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“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,” Bonneville-Roussy said. “I find it fascinating to see how seemingly trivial behavior such as music listening relates to so many psychological aspects, such as personality and age.”
The researchers said musical taste in adolescence is typically defined by a short burst of ‘intense’ followed by the beginnings of a steady climb of ‘contemporary’. A taste for ‘intense’ punk and metal usually peaks in adolescence and declines during early adulthood, while ‘contemporary’ pop and rap begins to rise, plateauing in 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 study author Jason Rentfrow, a psychologist at Cambridge.
“Adolescents’ quest for independence often takes the shape of a juxtaposed stance to the perceived ‘status quo’, that of parents and the establishment,” he added. “’Intense’ music, seen as aggressive, tense and characterized by loud, distorted sounds has the rebellious connotations that allow adolescents to stake a claim for the autonomy that is one of this period’s key ‘life challenges’.”
As the taste for ‘intense’ subsides in favor of ‘contemporary’ and early inclinations for ‘mellow’ electronic or RB, individuals are progressing into early adulthood, the next musical age.
“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,” Rentfrow said. “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,” Rentfrow added.
As middle age – or the last musical age as identified by the researchers – begins, it is dominated by ‘sophisticated’ jazz and classical and ‘unpretentious’ country, folk and blues.
The UK researchers connected a taste for ‘sophisticated’ music with the aesthetics of high culture or social status and perceived intellect.
“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 social status, 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.”
They linked a taste for ‘unpretentious’ music to sentiments of family, love and loss. They said this type of emotionally direct music speaks to the experiences most people have had by this life stage.
“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,” Rentfrow said.