For generations we’ve accepted that it is the social norm in Western civilization for children to gravitate away from the music of their parents. But a recent study by the Cornell University of Psychology seems to refute this generational music gap, and reinforce other studies that have previously stated that adolescence and the teenage years are the most important and influential time in forming musical knowledge and tastes. The Cornell study also corroborates other studies that say that people prefer older music more than newer music, including young adults who generally set the trend of what is considered popular in music in a given generation.
The Cornell University study states in part:
Autobiographical memories are disproportionately recalled for events in late adolescence and early adulthood, a phenomenon called the reminiscence bump. Previous studies on music have found autobiographical memories and life-long preferences for music from this period. In the present study, we probed young adults’ personal memories associated with top hits over 5-and-a-half decades, as well as the context of their memories and their recognition of, preference for, quality judgments of, and emotional reactions to that music.
All these measures showed the typical increase for music released during the two decades of their lives. Unexpectedly, we found that the same measures peaked for the music of participants’ parents’ generation. This finding points to the impact of music in childhood and suggests that these results reflect the prevalence of music in the home environment.
In other words, participants in the Cornell study preferred the music they’d been exposed to in the duration of their lives, including the music of their parents. Even more surprising, the participants, who had an average ago of 20, preferred their parents music over their own generation’s popular music. They also were able to identify artist and song names just as easy for their parent’s music as their own generation’s music.
It is easier for adolescents to learn new languages or musical instrument skills than it is for adults because adolescent brains are in the ideal window of having just enough comprehension, but are still forming critical synapses so they can be heavily influenced. Similarly, the music that adolescents and young adults are exposed to can make a critical difference in their listening habits and taste throughout life. Lead researcher for the Cornell University study Carol Lynne Krumhansl also explained to NPR that since adolescence and young adulthood tends to be an era of significant impact on our emotional growth, we tend to peg music more closely to memories from that period, making it even more meaningful to us—whether it’s the music of our generation, or our parent’s generation.
Since most of the study’s participants hovered around the age of 20, that would put their parents as products of the 1980’s. The 80’s is where the study found a significant spike in appeal and knowledge of music from participants, or a “reminiscence bump.”
The popularity of 80’s music is corroborated by two additional points of data outside of the Cornell study: 1) The presence of 80’s-influenced elements in present-day music, and 2) The sales spike of 80’s music. The below chart from Soundscan for total music sales in 2012 shows a dramatic spike in appeal for 80’s music, increasing 32% last year—higher than for any other decade.
But the lack of a music generation gap was not the only thing the study found surprising. They also found an unusual spike or “reminiscence bump” in music from the 60’s. Why? Lead researcher Carol Krumhansl has theorized that it has to do with the quality of 60’s music. As Saving Country music explained in a recent article about the science behind why pop music is bad, a study from the Million Song Dataset proved that on a scientific level, popular music from the 60’s was of better quality than the music of today, illustrated in the graph below that charts the quality and diversity of popular songs:
But could there be another reason? Just as the parents of today’s young adults listened to music from the 80’s, the grandparents of today’s music listeners listened to the music of the 60’s, potentially influencing their children and grandchildren. If today’s young adults are just as in tune with 80’s music as they are the music of their generation, so would their parents be with the music from the 60’s, playing 60’s music right beside 80’s music in a similar mix. This means the music you listen to could not only influence your children, but your grandchildren, and future generations down the line.
One thing the new Cornell study did not delve into was how the music young children are exposed to has changed over generations. For example, kids from the 60’s-80’s were raised on the complex compositions of Looney Tunes, while children of today are exposed to more simplistic music in cartoons and other media. The cutback of public funding for music education in schools, and the dumbing down of music curriculum to include more popular music and less classical and traditional music, especially for elementary-aged children, may also be a factor in the erosion of quality in popular music dictated through listener’s tastes.
But influence and taste is not the only reason to play good music for your kids. Music can also be a factor in the overall cognitive development of children. According to the Save The Music Foundation, access to quality music and music education:
- Improves early cognitive development, math and reading skills, and enhances learning in other core subjects.
- Develops critical thinking and leadership skills.
- Engages students in the classroom and increases graduation rates.
- Fosters self-esteem and the ability to work cooperatively in teams.
Learning how to play musical instruments offers even more cognitive benefits.
James S. Catterall of UCLA says that music helps develop spatial reasoning, which in turn helps children and adolescents with other non-music reasoning, like math.
Nowhere in the spectrum of arts learning effects on cognitive functioning are impacts more clear than in the rich archive of studies, many very recent, that show connections between music learning or musical experiences and fundamental cognitive capability called special reasoning. Music listening, learning to play piano and keyboards, and learning piano and voice all contribute to spatial reasoning. In the vast literature on spatial reasoning, it is clear that mathematical skills as well as language facility benefit directly from spatial reasoning.
As the above graph from the Million Song Dataset illustrates, popular music is going through a persistent and steady decline over time, potentially robbing future generations of both the enjoyment of music and its cognitive benefits. That is why the music that parent’s play for their children is important, and why the key to reversing the negative trends in popular music starts in the home.