It’s that time of year again when everyone reveals just how basic they really are with the all-seeing data collection power of Spotify. Using the insights gathered from its 381 million users across the world, Spotify is able to give us a key insight into musical trends over the past 12 months and each of us a crushing realisation that nothing ever changes and we are still the same person we were when we were a teenager.
But why is that? With artists like Bad Bunny, Taylor Swift, BTS, Drake, and Justin Bieber taking out the top spots as the most-streamed artists globally, and Olivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X, and Aussie sensation The Kid LAROI coming in as the artists of the most streamed songs of the year, why are some of us still listening to the same old songs over and over again? Turns out, that’s just how we’re hardwired to like and listen to music.
A 2018 analysis of Spotify data by journalist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz found that the music we listen to at the age of 13, for women, and 14, for men, has the strongest influence on the music we listen to later in life.
“Consider, for example, the song ‘Creep,’ by Radiohead,” Stephens-Davidowitz writes.
“This is the 164th most popular song among men who are now 38 years old. But it is not in the top 300 for the cohort born 10 years earlier or 10 years later”.
“Note that the men who most like ‘Creep’ now were roughly 14 when the song came out in 1993. In fact, this is a consistent pattern”.
Looking at data from the Billboard charts from 1960 through to 2000, the New York Times writer was able to ascertain that songs that were popular or influential on us during our early teenage years remain the most popular tracks or genres throughout our life.
This differs slightly by gender. For men, it’s the tracks they played between the ages of 13 and 16 that seem to determine their musical tastes during adulthood. For women, it’s the ages of 11 to 14 that appear to be the most significant later in life.
Our music tastes aren’t set in stone at this age, of course, but it seems that the music we listened to in our early 20s is around half as significant to our later tastes as that which we listened to during our adolescence.
Stephens-Davidowitz starts the piece by trying to figure out why he likes the song ‘Born to Run’ by Bruce Springsteen, as it’s not a song that fits this musical pattern, having been released well before his time. Research would suggest that it doesn’t particularly matter when songs were released, only that those songs are listened to during that crucial time frame. This could explain why our parent’s musical tastes have such influences on us later in life and why you’ll find people in their 30s and 40s who are such big fans of
The Beatles, despite that group having been popular in the 60s: it’s the children of Beatles fans who pass that love on to their kids and it sticks with them as they get older.
The reason those songs stay with us for so long could be to do with the way our brains develop as we get older. As babies, our brains are highly plastic, open to any and every new piece of information. As we get older, our brains solidify around certain information, like language, that we hear all the time, learning to identify patterns and trends in it so that we can anticipate future events and respond to them.
This ‘soldifying’ of the brain happens during the first few decades of our life, with our brains not fully developed until the age of 25. After this age, our brain structure and the way we take in new information is relatively fixed. That would appear to apply to our musical tastes as well. There is also research that shows that after the age of 33, we stop actively seeking out new music and tend to spend more time listening to the music of our youth and that, interestingly, this is more pronounced for men than it is for women,
Other studies have found that the reasons for this could be to do with the fact that after the age of 24 our ears begin to lose sensitivity, meaning that new music just doesn’t sound as good as the music of our youth. Others show that the rapid neural development we go through from the ages of 12-22, mixed up with the hormones of teenage years as well as the electrifying experience of every day where we’re trying new things for the very first time, all play a significant role in cementing the music that we listened to during that time as far more significant to our brains than the music we discover later in life.
This isn’t to say we can’t change our musical taste as we get older. We do tend to prefer more relaxed, easy-listening music as we age, so an adolescent who exclusively listened to angsty tunes might not find the constant barrage of Rage Against the Machine as soothing as they once did as they get older and seek out something a little more mellow.
Music tends to speak to us at critical points in life, with our teenage years and early 20s being some of the most turbulent. However, key experiences like the loss of loved ones, relationship breakdowns, mental health battles, and career crises also amp up that emotional drive, meaning that we can again connect with new music for comfort as we once did.
Therefore, it’s completely fine if your Spotify Wrapped reads like the back of a So Fresh 2005 CD. It likely always will because those are the songs that shaped you. Seeking out and discovering new music is always an option, and you can and will find artists you adore later in life, but, because of your very human brain, they just might not hit in quite the same way as they did when you were 13.