Recently Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a journalist for The New York Times, conducted research to identify any links between the year people are born and their general taste in music. The findings were very interesting and showed that tastes in music are cemented in peoples’ adolescence and, to a lesser degree, in their early twenties.
Radiohead’s Creep, for example, is very popular with men aged 38, who would have been around 14 when it was released in 1993. For males who are 10 years older or younger, the song is barely a blip on their radar. Across the board, the songs we enjoyed as teenagers and young adults stay close to our hearts and remain our favourite tunes. And science can explain why.
A Rush of Blood to the Head
Well, not just a rush of blood to the head – more like a rush of hormones to everywhere. Those heady days of youth are full of firsts – your first kiss, your first dance, your first fight and making up with a significant other, your first car. Most people are moving out and going to college, developing their independence – and developing their permanent sense of self.
The fact that so many milestones are occurring in quick succession combines with how important the pubertal growth hormones make everything feel, says Professor Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University’s Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise. Added to this, we use music as a powerful way of identifying with our peer group at this age, giving the songs we favour over this time even more power in the sense of self that we develop.
All Humans React; Young Adults Just React More
In general, our brains have the most remarkable relationship with music, and react strongly to songs. This is true of everyone, not just people in their teens and twenties; it’s just a lot more pronounced during this time period. When you hear a song that you like, a range of brain areas and cognitive functions are stimulated. If you dance along, for example, your neurons synchronise with the music’s beat.
As well as all the cerebral reactions to music, humans have a chemical, neurotransmitter response. Hearing songs that we enjoy or associate with good times and memories has been found, with brain imaging techniques, to stimulate the brain’s pleasure circuit. This triggers a release of oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and other feel-good neurochemicals. In adults this is usually more of a steady trickle; in teens it is a flood.
Couple the stronger neurochemical reaction with the heightened emotional response due to hormones, and the potent hold that the songs of our teenage and young adulthood years have over us begins to make perfect sense.
A Better Sense of Hearing
There is also a purely physiological aspect to all of this; when you are younger, you’re fitter and stronger and your hearing is better too. After the age of 24 or 25, your ability to perceive high pitches and small tonal changes begins to decline. Songs genuinely do sound more vivid when you’re having your peak emotional response to them; it really is a perfect storm. Once the link is established, anything that references those melodies can trigger pleasure and comfort; a karaoke night, a tribute band, or even NetEnt’s Jimi Hendrix, Guns ‘n Roses and Mötorhead slot machines. Not only is the happy automatic response in your brain’s physiology activated; you also remember some of the best times of your life. The reactions feed off each other and reinforce each other even more.
An Indelible Part of Who You Are
Love and drugs are the only things that spark a bigger reaction in humans’ brains than music. We are hardwired to love and internalise the songs that help us realise who we really are, in the critical, angst-filled period between childhood and becoming a mature adult. Just as there are critical language-learning periods and stages of life where we need to learn certain skills and develop various emotions, so there is a pivotal age for solidifying our taste in music. And just like language, skills and emotions, the way we evolve is unavoidably – for good or bad – influenced by what we are exposed to.