A new study shows that our interest in pop music thrives until age 25, then quickly matures into an unhip groove
A new study indicates people start off listening to chart-topping pop music and branch off into all kinds of territory in their teens and early 20s, before their musical tastes start to calcify and become more rigid by their mid-30s.
That is, unless you have children. In which case, that little bundle of joy puts a halt to keeping up with the hottest tracks faster than a new parent can say “Tove Lo.”
Ajay Kalia, an employee of Spotify and Echo Nest who develops listener taste profiles, used data from those two services to chart listening preferences among different ages and then chart those artists on an index of overall popularity. In general, the youngest listeners, 13 and 14 years olds, almost exclusively tune in to top-of-the-charts artists. From around 15 to 25, musical tastes expand quickly, and the share of mainstream music on a listener’s playlists decreases before leveling out in the mid-30s.
Upon the study’s release, some critics balked at the idea that we stop listening to new music in our mid-30s. The study is measuring musical tastes by the artist’s current popularity and refers to “mainstream music” rather than tunes from different eras or genres. Just because someone listens to artists in the 1,000 to 2,000 range on the popularity index does not necessarily mean those artists are old-school; they could just as easily be new artists who haven’t blown up yet.
Kalia himself indicates the study refers to popular music and not specific genres or time periods with the title of his analysis: “Music was better back then: When do we stop keeping up with popular music?” It’s not that you stop listening to new artists or even discovering new styles as you age, just that you won’t care as much who is taking home platinum records and leading the iTunes downloads race.
“I looked specifically at how propensity for ‘hot,’ popular, mainstream music artists evolves as people age — that is, music that’s ‘new to the culture,’” Kalia told Cuepoint in an email elaborating on his research. “This is distinct from discovering music that’s ‘new to you,’ which can of course continue on indefinitely.”
Another Echo Nest employee, Paul Lamere, also found that 13 year olds listen almost exclusively to current top artists when he explored data looking at age and musical tastes on his blog last year.
The information on listening habits only comes from Spotify, so there’s no way to tell if people’s musical preferences would shift if the data included everything they listen to. The study only looked at U.S. listeners in order to eliminate cultural differences in listening patterns.
“We see only a portion of someone’s listening — we wouldn’t have visibility into your other sources like Pandora or iTunes, and external research has shown that in the U.S. it’s not unusual for someone to use multiple such services for different reasons,” Kalia said.
Because Spotify is a subscription service, though, there is no additional cost for users to check out unknown artists or songs and a “wider spectrum” of the listeners’ tastes is captured, Kalia said.
Those limitations aside, the research revealed some interesting patterns. By looking at Spotify listeners who streamed nursery songs and other children’s music, then analyzing the remaining songs they listened to, Kalia identified a baby factor. Having a child effectively made people, on average, four years older than their real age in terms of musical tastes.
Men, it turns out, give up popular music much more quickly than women. Men and women have similar musical listening tendencies through their teens, but men start shunning mainstream artists much sooner than women and to a greater degree.
“These days, the top of the charts skew towards female-skewing artists including female solo vocalists, which may contribute to the delta,” Kalia states in his study.
These are general trends and not hard and fast rules, and Kalia, who is 32, said the research is just one useful tool for discerning listener’s tastes and preferences.
“One interesting outcome from a study like this is that since music can be so closely tied to identity, reactions can fall into one of two camps,” he said. “There’s, ‘Yep, this makes total sense,’ and there’s ‘What!? This doesn’t describe me at all!.’ I fall closer to the latter, which is probably why I work at the company I do.”
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