Why some 'old folks' avoid new music
A young teenager listens to music in his bedroom – perhaps it’s the cutting-edge pop of the day, or maybe something loud, sweary or rebellious. From the loungeroom, his grouchy old man yells out, “Turn off that racket!”
This scene might seem clichéd or contrived, but research suggests it could be quite common. Multiple studies support the theory that people tend to become less open to new music as they age, their tolerance declining from the late-20s onwards.
Think of the disgruntled Triple J listener who complains that the youth radio station “used to be better” when they were the target audience. So-called ‘old folks’ seem to have little patience for, and openness to, new music.
“What large-scale studies tell us is that as people get older, their engagement with music decreases,” says Professor Timothy McKenry, a music researcher, composer and educator at ACU. “It also tells us that their impatience and negative feelings towards new music tends to increase at the same time.”
The evidence to support the link between age and declining tolerance for new music is strong, says Professor McKenry. Exactly why it happens is much more difficult to grasp.
In a mini-essay for The Conversation, he poses the question, ‘Why do we stop exploring new music as we get older?’.
But before we get on to finding an answer, let’s clarify what Professor McKenry means by “new music”. Are we talking about completely new styles and subgenres, for example, or simply music that is new to a particular listener?
“I’m glad you picked me up on that,” he says, “because while there might be a subtle insinuation in The Conversation article that I’m talking about cutting-edge pop music or the type of music that young people listen to, ‘new music’ in this context is merely something that is new to the listener – and that is tied to familiarity.”
In other words, to some listeners, Miles Davis’s Venus de Milo (1949) might be just as new as Miley Cyrus’s Flowers (2023).
So, why do so many of us stop exploring unfamiliar music as we age?
“It’s a hard one to answer,” says Professor McKenry, “because there are many factors and many things to consider, and so you’ve got to draw from many different academic disciplines to sort things out.”
Among the most popular theories relating to our preparedness to explore new music is the concept of “open-earedness”.
First raised by psychologist David Hargreaves in 1982, the theory posits that younger people may be more “open-eared” to different forms of music than adults are.
“It’s a term used to capture the notion that our degree of willingness to engage with new music changes at different stages of life,” says Professor McKenry, whose own research explores issues of ethics in music, the evolution of art music in Western culture, and other topics.
“What we find is that really young kids up to about the age of nine are more than happy to engage with anything that is played to them; they don’t come to music with any preconceptions.”
The early teens signal an intensification of engagement and interest in music, with adolescents typically spending 20 per cent of their waking hours listening to their favourite tunes. For young people like the teenager from our opener, music acts as a vehicle for self-discovery and self-expression, aiding them as they form an identity and navigate social circles.
Interestingly, this increased musical engagement is accompanied by a simultaneous narrowing in open-earedness, as people form strong musical preferences. Research shows that in most people, musical tastes begin to crystallise in early adolescence.
“So you’re listening to music, you’ve got an interest in it, you’re using it to form an identity, and the act of listening to music gives you a dopamine hit that generates pleasure,” says Professor McKenry, adding that there is broad academic consensus that people’s tastes are strongly shaped by the music they first encounter at this age.
The insights provided by neuroscience are particularly useful in explaining not only why our musical preferences develop in early adolescence, but also the attachment that adults have with old favourites from their teen years.
“Put simply, the idea is that the strong feelings that accompany puberty and adolescence are very good at forming strong memories,” says Professor McKenry, citing the book This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, the neuroscientist driving the idea that musical taste boils down to memory and familiarity.
“So our brains essentially act as pleasure machines in the sense that we will search out the patterns and experiences we find rewarding and pleasurable.”
If musical taste is simply linked to patterns our brain recognises from earlier in life that elicit a feel-good dopamine release, this might also explain why we tend to find new music harder to palate as we age.
“When we stop actively listening to new or unfamiliar music, the link between the musical pattern and pleasure is severed,” writes Professor McKenry in The Conversation. “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.”
Being a good listener
In summary, the data clearly tells us that by the time most people get to their 30s, their musical consumption slumps to around 13 per cent of waking hours – and at the same time, their open-earedness is on downward trajectory that might never be reversed.
It is important to note, however, that some scholars question the idea of a straightforward link between age and deteriorating musical tolerance. They contend that people engage with music in different ways depending on their situation.
Young teenagers, for example, are much freer to explore their musical interests than time-poor adults with pressures and responsibilities. Furthermore, adults with established personalities and social networks might have less motivation to engage with new music than experimenting adolescents.
“The research shows that adults still listen to a lot of music, but perhaps they aren’t conscious of the extent to which they’re exposing themselves to new music,” says Professor McKenry, pointing to a 2010 study on the use of music in everyday life.
“Often the music they listen to will be on the radio, so it’s not something they have chosen themselves… it’s music that is used to motivate during exercise, or it’s background music or music that is part of a podcast. So their listening becomes occasional, and music is often an accompaniment.”
Other researchers point to a lowering tolerance for loud and high-frequency sounds as another possible cause for a reduced interest in new music at a certain age.
Whatever the cause might be, Professor McKenry believes we should all be conscious of the possibility that one day – just like the grouchy dad and the disgruntled Triple J listener – we might find ourselves being less tolerant to new music than we’d like to be.
“It’s easy to say, ‘That will never happen to me’, but I think it’s worth consciously making the decision to form good habits and listen to unfamiliar music regularly as part of your life,” he says.
“You can still love the music you’ve always loved, but don’t deny yourself the possibility of new joys of discovery. Be curious about new music and give it time to grow on you.”
After all, the fact that a piece of music is new or foreign should not make us instantly dismiss it as “racket”.
“I sometimes wonder if people realise how insulting they’re being when they say young people’s music is terrible,” Professor McKenry says. “Every period of music is meaningful to some people, and if we denigrate it, are we not also denigrating the person?”
Professor Tim McKenry is a music researcher, composer and educator at ACU. His research interests include the evolution of art music in Western culture, issues of ethics in music, Australian art music, music pedagogy and music theory. He is a nationally-recognised expert in the area of music language study and composer training.
In 2014, he won an OLT citation for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, as well as the Vice Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence Award.
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