Why Do We Stop Exploring New Music as We Get Older?

Summary: As we age, most of us tend to stop paying attention to new music and stick with the songs from our past. Researchers explore why we narrow our horizons for exploring new music as we age and say listening to new tracks can help create new memory bonds and experience new pleasures.

Source: The Conversation

According to an estimate from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, an organization that represents the international music industry, people around the world spend on average 20.1 hours per week listening to music, up from 18.4 hours in 2021.

We have more ways to access music than at any time in history and a whole world of unfamiliar styles to explore.

The thrill of discovering new songs and new sounds can enrich people of all ages.

Except, most of the time, it doesn’t.

Our willingness to explore new or unfamiliar music declines with age. Multiple studies confirm the sentiments of US songwriter and musician Bob Seger:

Today’s music ain’t got the same soul
I like that old time rock ‘n’ roll

Exploring new music

Academics use the term “open-earedness” to describe our willingness to explore new music. Across our lives this willingness waxes and wanes.

Until around the age of 11, children are generally happy to engage with unfamiliar music. Early adolescence sees a reduction in open-earedness, but is accompanied by an intense increase in interest in music more generally. Open-earedness increases slightly during young adulthood, then declines as we age.

major 2013 study involving more than 250,000 participants confirmed these changing behaviours. It also showed that the significance we ascribe to music after adolescence declines, and the amount of music we listen to reduces from a high point of 20% of our waking time during adolescence, to 13% in adulthood.

Shifting priorities

Researchers have different, but generally complementary, theories to account for these population-level trends. Some interpret the observed decline in music engagement in terms of psychosocial maturation.

Adolescents use music as an identity marker and engage with it to navigate social circles. Adults have developed personalities and established social groups. As such, drivers to engage with new music are lessened.

These same researchers point to age-related changes to hearing acuity – specifically a lowering tolerance for loud and high-frequency sound – as one cause for a reduced interest in new music for some people.

One explanation for the age-based reduction in music consumption simply posits that responsibility-laden adults may have less discretionary time to explore their musical interests than younger people.

Some scholars question whether there is a straightforward link between the decline in the rate of new music consumption and increasing music intolerance.

Others argue against using chronological age as a predictor for stagnant musical taste without first considering the different ways we process and use music across our lifespan. Teenagers tend to be very aware of what they are listening to. Adults who use music as motivation or accompaniment for activities such as exercise or menial tasks may be less conscious of the extent to which they actually do listen to new music.

There is consensus that people are highly likely to have their taste shaped by the music they first encounter in adolescence.

This shows a cassette tape
These same researchers point to age-related changes to hearing acuity – specifically a lowering tolerance for loud and high-frequency sound – as one cause for a reduced interest in new music for some people. Image is in the public domain

Adolescence shapes musical taste firstly because our brains are developed to the point where we can fully process what we’re hearing, and secondly because the heightened emotions of puberty create strong and lasting bonds of memory.

Soundtrack of our lives

Neuroscience provides some fascinating insights into how and why our musical tastes develop. We know, for example, infants display an affinity to music they heard in utero.

Also, musical taste boils down to familiarity. In his book This is Your Brain on Music, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes:

when we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives.

What we think of as our “taste” is simply a dopamine reaction arising from patterns our brain recognises which create the expectation of pleasure based on pleasures past. When we stop actively listening to new or unfamiliar music the link between the musical pattern and pleasure is severed.

It may take a decade or two to get there, but the result is, eventually, “young people’s music” will alienate and bring no pleasure.

So, are we doomed to musical obsolescence as we age? Far from it. Recent research suggests musical taste does not need to calcify but can continue to develop across our lives.

Expanding our horizons

Here are some tips if you want to train your musical taste to extend beyond the “old favourites” of youth:

  1. cultivate different modes of listening including in formal (concerts), focused (solitary), casual (as an accompaniment to other activity) and social settings
  2. make listening habitual
  3. be curious about what you’re listening to. You can help your brain form new patterns by knowing something of the story behind the music
  4. be patient and persistent. Don’t assume because you don’t immediately like an unfamiliar piece that it’s not worth listening to. The more you listen, the better your brain will be at triggering a pleasure response
  5. find a friend to give you recommendations. There’s a good chance you’ll listen to music suggested to you by someone you like and admire
  6. keep listening to the music you love, but be willing to revisit long-held beliefs, particularly if you describe your musical taste in the negative (such as “I hate jazz”); it’s likely these attitudes will stifle your joy
  7. don’t feel you have to keep up with new music trends. We’ve 1,000 years of music to explore.

If, after making the effort, you still find new popular music hard to bear, take solace from songwriter Ben Folds, who says in his memoir:

Good pop music, truly of its moment, should throw older adults off its scent. It should clear the room of boring adults and give the kids some space.

About this music, aging, and neuroscience research news

Author: Timothy McKenry
Source: The Conversation
Contact: Timothy McKenry – The Conversation
Image: The image is in the public domain

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  1. 35 here. I go through periods of finding new and old music. I’m of the opinion that for those people who think older music was inherently better, it’s just that you are limiting yourself to the best of what was available at those times. I mean, there were some definite heights, particularly in rock, that I don’t know that much these days can compare with. I don’t know that we’ll ever have another Beatles, Pink Floyd, or my personal favorite: David Bowie. However, for every “Golden Years” there’s a “Disco Duck” (both released in ’76).

    Even within the same artist… Pet Sounds is probably one of the most perfect albums ever made, but when the Beach Boys released that, they were only one year and album removed from “Amusement Parks U.S.A.” (if you don’t count “Beach Boys Party!” which was mostly covers).

    The 60s gave us everything from the Beatles, the Stones, The Who, Black Sabbath, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Frank Zappa to “Yummy Yummy Yummy” (Ohio Express), Johnny Rebel, and Tiny Tim.

    And there are similar highs and lows in the 80s and 90s. And of course my generation had Creed, Nickelback, Falloutboy, and My Bloody Valentine (gross)… These younger kids today have some real stinkers too. But there are some really good high points now as well.

    I think a lot of it comes down to your formative years and familiarity. There’s definitely something to be said of the idea that modern mainstream music has gotten more generic and homogenized. Since the advent of online music piracy and streaming, big music execs are less willing to take chances and let their own artists experiment unless they’re already huge. They have everything down to a science to cater to the lowest common denominator and have algorithms to figure out what’s gonna stream really well. But there’s also a lot of independent artists who are not relying on labels to make their music. They’re harder to find, sure, but they’re out there. Then there are artists like Styx who put out, arguably, their two best albums of their careers in the last 10 years. I’m probably not gonna give Miley Cyrus’ new album a stream, but Charli XCX has some really good stuff if you’re into that kind of thing, and Glass Animals put out an album a couple years ago that was an instant classic.

  2. At 65 years old I’m happy to say I hear something new almost every day that I absolutely love. Quite frankly I imagine I would find several new songs that I’d never heard every day that I love if I spent more time listening to music than I already do. I reposted this article on Facebook because I am a retired musician who’s friends are mainly musicians and hardcore music fans. Sadly, it seems that most of them have stopped exploring new music and have settle into the playlist from their glory days. I on the other hand still love discovering a new song or a new artist and I make it a point to try to bring awareness of emerging artists to anyone I associate with as my way of helping artists that I enjoy find a wider audience.

  3. Age 51. Still love finding new music. Youtube music algorithms are truly woeful but have led to a couple of discoveries. Here are ways I continually find diverse and wonderful discoveries 1. Bandcamp daily list 2. Music podcasts like Sound Opinions, Watt from Pedro Show and James Acaster’s Perfect Sounds, NPR tiny desk concerts, KEXP song of the day and community radio stations (PBS here in Melb Aus). 3 Follow ‘best of’ lists and annual awards eg Mercury Prize, ‘best of year’ episodes (eg sound opinions). Nate Chinen has a great book with a list(available online) of 120+ best jazz albums from this century – excellent. Hope others can share their secrets.

  4. Perhaps the conclusion of this research project is based on a false premise – that we actually have as many choices when we’re older than we had when younger. The fact that music is available somewhere doesn’t mean I can get it into my earbuds.

    For me it’s the exact opposite. At 65 I am BORED STIFF by what Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube think I’m going to like. For years I’ve been trying to figure out how can I reprogram Spotify’s Discover Weekly “tailored just for me” to actually let me discover different genres. Despite the fact that my playlists reflect instrumental, jazz, African, Brazilian, Celtic, Scandinavian, classical, pop, and rock, all Spotify thinks I like is solo indie singers with boring arrangements that sound like country music, as well as 1970s rock hits. Their algorithm doesn’t insert a single instrumental into the mix.

    I used to go to record stores and listen to “strange” albums, which was how I developed a more eclectic taste. FM radio stations were more diversified than they are today. I find it almost impossible to be exposed to different sounds these days. In desperation I downloaded an app called Radio Box that lets me listen to music from Madagascar and the Philippines. Unfortunately reception isn’t that good and oftentimes I don’t know who the artist is.

    1. What a shame! Spotify has introduced me to both new music that I happen to love, and some older stuff that I somehow missed out on.

  5. So true. I am 67 and the best music imho was new music in my adolescence and early adulthood. I have been able to find some new music I like but most new music is souless formulaic garbage

  6. I am now 75, and I listen to music more than the average 20 hours per week.

    With the advantage of being retired, and enjoying the audiophile hobby, my reading the related forums and hi-fi equipment reviews helps me discover new music every week.

    I admit I still like some old favourites from my formative years (i.e. up to college graduation), and have developed a taste for smooth jazz and old standards over the past15 years.

    However I now have poor tolerance for loud, over-compressed music or wailing saxophones. However I will listen to new albums by Taylor or Billie, and their melodies and excellent production quality provided lots of pleasure.

  7. I’d stopped listening to new music several years ago when anytime I switched over to my then favourite music channel, I would be deluged with “artists” degrading women, advocating violence and promoting racism.

    At that point it had nothing to do with the music and an awful lot to do with the dissemination of the music of a particular culture that constantly and wilfully pushed these themes.

    It’s possibly more an objection to the culture of hate and bigotry than a hatred of new music.

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