are musical tastes formed for life… by age 14?

This week’s post comes from an article that appeared in the New York Times a few weeks ago. “The Songs That Bind“… I found it via the Digital Music News and here’s their article on it.

That’s an interesting question and premise and of course, one that I would be very interested in as both a musician and a listener/consumer as music has pretty much defined my entire life (growing up in a musical household will do that).

The basic premise of the study, with data culled from Spotify, is that our lifelong musical tastes are formed in early adolescence – for men, between the ages of 13-16; for women, slightly earlier, between the ages of 11-14. In his study, Seth focuses solely on the songs that were popular for people of those age ranges throughout the years of popular music, for each generation.

I would tend to agree with his findings, for the most part, and I think the article and study is fascinating and a good one albeit incomplete as it covers only the data on songs – the “chart-topping songs” – and does not include genres, specific albums, or the conditioning aspects of hearing those songs repeatedly on the radio, or the additional conditioning influence of peer influence/acceptance which can be such a determining factor in those early adolescent years, or even, and perhaps more importantly, what a young listener might have heard in their home or on the radio before those early adolescent years.

I thought back to my own listening experiences, what influenced me the most during those years from 13 to 16 which corresponds to the years from 1969 to 1972. A visual list…

The 9 most influential albums for me personally from 1969-1972 (age 13-16) – influential as in most impactful from the first time I heard them. From left to right, top to bottom, in roughly chronological order: Led Zeppelin I, Three Dog Night – Naturally, Derek & the Dominos – Layla & Other Love Songs, Alice Cooper – Killer, The Who – Who’s Next, Mott the Hoople – All the Young Dudes, Todd Rundgren – Something/Anything?, David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars, and Lou Reed – Transformer.

I focus mostly on albums here rather than the chart-topping songs because even back then I listened more to albums than songs on the various radio stations although I might have first become acquainted with a band’s music via radio whether AM or FM (e.g., Three Dog Night). I can certainly remember the first time I heard Led Zeppelin’s debut album in 1969 – in full in Mr. Kyzer’s art class at St. Mark’s School (Dallas, TX) in the first quarter of 7th grade. That definitely had an impact, particularly the song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You“… but I remember the song from that day in art class, not the radio. Eventually the song became an FM radio staple as did most of Led Zep’s songs.

As far as specific songs that hit the sweet spot of peak influence at age 14, I can think of several right offhand: “Layla” from Derek & the Dominos, Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come“, “One Man Band” and “Never Been to Spain” (and pretty much every song off the Naturally and Harmony albums), from the Jackson 5 with a young Michael Jackson, “ABC” and “I’ll Be There“, and from the heavier side of things, Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” and “The Song Is Over” by The Who. That covers a lot of musical ground in just one year.

I can remember thinking, after the first few times I heard “Layla”, that it was the greatest rock song ever recorded. The Who’s “The Song Is Over” after all these years is still my favorite song of all time and probably will remain so (unless “Purple Rain” or “Take Me With U” eventually overtake it).

Initially, Seth’s findings would appear to hold true even if that list wasn’t all chart-topping songs. I asked Erin if she remembered what she was listening to and what her favorite songs were between the ages of 11 and 14, which for her would correspond to the years 1972-1975. She said she remembered listening to a lot of Chicago… like around the time of “Wishing You Were Here” (released in October, 1974) and a couple of others from the album Chicago 7 – “(I’ve Been) Searching So Long” and “Call on Me“. The latter I’ll include here because it comes with some vintage footage from The Caribou Ranch Recording Studio in nearby Nederland (CO).

She said she also listened to the Doobie Brothers, a lot of Aerosmith (covers everything from “Dream On” to “Walk This Way“) and the Stones during that time – think “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll“, also released in October, 1974. From that same time period, “Do It Again” from 1972 is her favorite Steely Dan song.

So far so good, the study looks to be fairly accurate and you can try this out at home… Your results may vary. Having said that, there are songs, albums, and bands I can think of that I love just as much that fall outside of those peak years of influence and Seth acknowledges that as well. I know I love “Saturday Night” by Suede (a.k.a. The London Suede) from 1997 or most of Guided by Voices’ work all the way into the 2000s, up through their most recent releases in 2017, “August by Cake” and “How Do You Spell Heaven”, as much as anything from the early 1970s and the same could be said of a lot of Buddy Holly songs from the 1950s when I was too young to remember anything I would have heard then.

It would be interesting to expand this kind of study into other areas of how our musical tastes are formed. This study found the age range of peak influence for people’s musical tastes based only on songs but certainly musical tastes are formed much earlier in a person’s life. It would be interesting for instance, to do a similar study based on genres, particular types of music. If someone grows up hearing a certain genre or genres when they’re young, such as rock or country, jazz or pop or rhythm & blues, are they more predisposed to mostly listen to that genre to the exclusion of other genres after the age of peak influence? That might seem like an obvious thing but nothing’s set in stone.

The study showed people’s preferences for particular songs, songs they liked at a certain age, but then would the songs, genres, or bands they had an aversion to during the ages of peak influence preclude them from ever listening to that song or artist? To this day I still can’t stomach “Brandy” (Looking Glass, 1972) or bubble-gum pop.

Within a band or artist’s overall work, it would be interesting to see if a person had favorite songs or a favorite album that falls within the early adolescent period and then gradually doesn’t listen to much of the artist’s later music but still loves those 1 or more albums and songs from the peak influence years. Or maybe they come across an artist’s work much later, an artist who might not have existed when they were 13 or 14, but sounds familiar to what they listened to back then.

And finally, another thing I’d also be very curious to see in a study like this is what effect a major life event or otherwise intense experience (usually an emotional one) has as far as forming a bond with certain songs outside of those peak influence years. From my own experience, I know this does happen and is probably one of the factors that accounts for the author’s liking songs from artists that came out well before he was born.

Anyway, a lot of avenues for exploration here and some further food for thought.

From the top of the Lenawee Lift at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area last Saturday, at about 13,000 feet…

Nights on Venus News:
After an uncharacteristic one-month long break where I didn’t do anything after the release of “Snow Day” in December, which I’d never done before since NoV began, I’m back in the studio recording new songs while we’ve been skiing on alternating weekends up at A-Basin. The calendar says it’s about to be spring in a couple of weeks (the scourge of Daylight Savings Time is upon us again this weekend and you can read up on how I feel about that), but hopefully there should a few more good snows up in the high country and we can get another 2-3 ski days in before we call it a winter. New music will be coming soon – currently finishing up on three new songs, “The Wheels Are Coming Off”, “Outlier”, and “Our Alternate Lives” and will put a preview up here in the weeks ahead. ‘Til next time…

Album cover for “We Are All Haunted by Something”, released on July 23, 2017. This is the old abandoned Apache Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico – shot taken in 2009. The image of the night sky is from Justin Marsh, added with his permission.
Cover artwork for the most recent 3-song single/EP “Snow Day”, released on December 23rd, 2017. Available now on all digital media outlets…

The most recent releases from NoV are the 3-song single/EP “Snow Day” and the full-length album, “We Are All Haunted by Something“, both from 2017. “We Are All Haunted…” includes the 2-song single “Speed of Life” and “Confirm Humanity (I’m Not a Robot)”. All are available on iTunes, Bandcamp, CD Baby, and Amazon MP3.

Speed of Life“,Unearthly, Santos and all previous Nights on Venus albums are available as MP3 digital downloads on Bandcamp, CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon MP3, and also the NoV Website.

Cover artwork for “Unearthly”… photo/design by CCT
My two Reverends… “Goldenboy” on the left (a Rocco from 2002), and “Prince” (a Charger LE with the P-90 pickups from 2014) – not purple, but it came to me from Minnesota.

Follow Craig and Nights on Venus on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

“Everything popular is wrong.” – Oscar Wilde





Author: nightsonvenus

Musician and producer with the band Nights on Venus.

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