If someone asked you to create the soundtrack of your life, what songs would make the playlist? Would you look at what was on the charts last year? Or would you go for the album you played on a continuous loop when you and your college friends made that epic road trip to California, or even further back. How much of the music that defines you — your style, your tastes, your personality — was popular when you were a teenager?
Pop psychologists call this phenomenon "taste freeze." The theory is that our musical tastes crystallize during late adolescence through our early twenties — a heightened period of emotional and social activity. Indeed, Daniel Levitin, director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, called 14 the "magic age for the development of musical tastes" in a New York Times article. "Pubertal growth hormones make everything we're experiencing, including music, seem very important," he wrote.
Petr Janata, a psychology professor with the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California Davis, agrees. Janata studies how music can evoke powerful memories, even in Alzheimer's patients. He says that we associate strong emotional memories with music, especially music from our youth. It's all part of something called the "reminiscence bump."
"The reminiscence bump is a preferential retrieval of memories from our teenage and young adult years," Janata says. "For many teenagers, music is a big part of their lives. It's a big part of social and emotional fabric of those years."
But Janata doubts that this neural nostalgia is powerful enough to shape our musical tastes over an entire lifetime. He sees a much stronger connection between personality and musical tastes, or even emotions and musical preferences.
"People are really good at picking music that suits their emotions at a particular time of day," says Janata. "They also use music to regulate their emotions. Personality and emotion regulation can really shape musical preference, whether it's overarching preferences that span years, or change from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour."
On the surface, taste freeze sounds convincing enough. After all, if you're over 30, chances are you've heard the latest hot song blasting from a passing car and thought, "Music was better back in the day."
But how much do you really listen to the music of your youth? Is it still the soundtrack of your life? And how different is the way we consume music today — particularly after the rise of streaming music services — compared to the bygone era of Top 40 radio and mix tapes?
Teens listen almost exclusively to the most popular songs and artists
As listeners age into their twenties, their share of popular music drops steadily
By their early thirties, most listeners settle into a "groove" of music and artists that are far from the top of the charts
Does the Spotify data strengthen the case for taste freeze? Not really. All this proves is that as people get older, they listen to less popular music. As study author Ajay Kalia points out, this could be explained by two things: First, listeners return to their favorite old bands who are no longer on the charts (i.e. taste freeze), and second, they have discovered new music that isn't on Top 40 radio.
Here's another stat from the Spotify data that seems to support the latter theory that older listeners have eclectic, not frozen tastes. Paul Lamere, who works at The Echo Nest, a music intelligence service, mined the user data and found that people between the ages of 25 and 34 listen to more music and have more artists in active rotation than any other age group on Spotify, including teens and college-age users.
Sean Ryan is an excellent example of how even an "old dude" can avoid taste freeze. Sean is 40, a recent dad, and a senior manager at a large Washington, D.C. consulting firm. He says he almost never listens to the bands he loved as a teen, although a lot of his newer music falls into similar styles and genres. He credits his eclectic playlist to friends who have wildly different tastes and, interestingly enough, to his daily commute.
"Every day I listen to Sirius XMU on my way to work, and I use Pandora at home," Ryan says. "And I definitely take suggestions. If I'm in the Google Play store and it says, 'people who liked X also bought Y,' I'll play a few of the free songs just to see. Occasionally something hits and I'll buy that, too."
Streaming music services use complex algorithms to predict your musical taste and suggest new bands that fit your profile. In the digital age, it's easier than ever to find new music, even if a 13-year-old wouldn't be caught dead listening to it.
And sometimes the 13-year-old and her grandfather have more in common musically than they might like to admit. Paul Lamere found that the top two artists listened to by 64-year-olds in 2011 were Bruno Mars and Elvis Presley. For 13-year-olds, it was One Direction — and Bruno Mars.