Are people who hate music normal?

Everything just boom, boom, boom

When I was a teenager myself, my father wasn't particularly interested in the music I liked. To him everything just sounded like "a lot of noise", while of course he described the music he was listening to as "beautiful". He kept this attitude all his life. Even when he was in his 80s, he once turned to me during a TV commercial with a 50-year-old Beatles song and whispered, "You know, I just can't do anything with today's music."

It turned out that my father is not alone in this. Now that I'm not one of the youngest myself, I often hear people my age say things like "You just don't make as good music as you used to". Why is this happening?

Fortunately, my work as a psychologist gives me some insight into this mystery. We know that taste in music begins to crystallize by the age of 13 or 14. In the early twenties, these tastes are relatively firmly anchored. In fact, there are studies that suggest that most of us stop listening to new music by the age of 33. Meanwhile, songs that came out when you were a teenager are likely to remain pretty popular in your age cohort for the rest of your life, too.

The brain slacks off

There could be a biological explanation for this. There is evidence that the brain's ability to make subtle differences between different chords, rhythms, and melodies deteriorates with age. So to older people, newer, lesser-known songs could really all "sound the same".

Still, I believe that there are some simpler reasons older people might dislike newer music. One of the best-researched laws of social psychology is the so-called "mere exposure effect". In short, the more we are exposed to something, the more we tend to like it. That goes for the people we know, the ads we see and, yes, last but not least, the songs we hear.

If you're in your early teens, you likely spend a fair amount of time listening to music or watching music videos. Your own favorite songs and artists become familiar and fill your everyday life with sound. For many people over 30, however, work and family responsibilities increase so much that there is less time to discover new music. Instead, many simply listen to old, familiar favorite songs from the time of their lives, when they simply had more time for music.

Intense memories shape preferences

Of course, these teenage years are not necessarily easy going. It is well known that they are sometimes quite upsetting, which is why so many TV shows and films revolve around all the trials and tribulations that one goes through in one's school days. Psychological research has shown that people experience the emotions they experience as teenagers seem more intense than those that follow later in life. We also know that intense emotions are associated with stronger memories and preferences. All of this could explain why the songs we listen to in youth remain so memorable and popular.

So there's nothing wrong with parents who don't like their children's music. In a way, that's just "normal". On the other hand, I can say from my own experience that I developed a taste for the music my own children listened to when they were through puberty. So there is definitely hope for teenagers to get their parents excited about Billie Eilish or Lil Nas X.

Frank T. McAndrew is an American social psychologist and professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois