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How Do We Develop Our Taste in Music?

One of my grandma’s favourite stories takes place in my preschool days in the late 90s. The teacher asked the toddlers to sing their favourite nursery rhymes, and was met with Mary Had A Little Lamb, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – all the hits. Then it was my turn. As I rose to my feet, my grandma watched in anticipation as I then triumphantly sang: “Here come the Men In Black! Galaxy defenders!”. Will Smith’s disco-laden hip-hop track for his 1997 sci-fi movie had overcome me, with the Patrice Rushen Forget Me Nots groove proving irresistible to my tiny, dancing feet. 

Is it a coincidence, then, that I’m still a sucker for 90s hip-hop and house edits of 70s disco tunes? Had my taste in music already developed by the age of three? Could my entire listening life be predicated by the movies I watched and the music my family listened to? Whether you’re a jazz cat, a metal head, a bass junkie or a trap queen, your playlists and record collections might not be dictated by your own free will. 

Legendary drummer Questlove recounts in his Pitchfork //Over/Under// interview that his parents would punish him by making him listen to jazz music. As a result, he began to enjoy the genre and its subsequent brainchild, boom-bap hip-hop. Amy Winehouse grew up in a family of jazz musicians and lovers of Frank Sinatra. There are countless anecdotes like this that all seemingly mean our parents are the source of our music taste. And, up to a point, that’s true. 

Your musical experiences begin before you’re even born. A fetus in the womb can hear and process sounds from the outside world and, as shown in a 2001 study by Alexandra Lamont, can also remember music they’ve heard a year after they are born. Better still, they actually prefer that music when given a choice of what to listen to. 

In Lamont’s study, mothers would frequently play a collection of specific songs during the final three months of pregnancy. A year later, Lamont would play two songs through a speaker, the one from the pregnancy and one the child had never heard before. When the child would look at a speaker, it would begin to play the song, giving them control over which song was playing. Lamont found that all the children in the experiment would gaze longer at the speaker that played the song they were familiar with. This didn’t just indicate recognition of the music, but showed that there was a preference, too. 

By the age of two, children start to show a preference for music of their culture. They also tend to gravitate towards music with simple melodies and arrangements. This starts to change as they grow older, becoming bored with predictable songs and seeking out new musical challenges in more complex music. This might explain why Questlove started to enjoy the jazz songs that his parents used to punish him. New musical experiences like this tend to open the floodgates for similar genres or subgenres; certain chords and voicings within the music can cement themselves in the brain. 

Image by Tash Hopkins

Our teenage years are when we begin to discover ourselves and our taste in music. The songs we listen to as teenagers eventually become the music that makes us nostalgic as adults. We remember these songs and enjoy them because they were “emotionally charged”, Daniel Levitin says in This Is Your Brain On Music. “We tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to ‘tag’ the memories as something important”, he continues. As a result, we tend to form our taste in music between the ages of eighteen and twenty.

Music has social consequences too, particularly as teenagers. Teenagers want to fit in, and are influenced by the music taste of their peers or those that they want to be friends with. When we are teenagers, we adopt the trends of our friends: music, dress sense and hobbies. And the music we listen to is likely to be determined by where we live, where we go to school, and what the surrounding culture is listening to. If you were growing up around Croydon in 2005, you might have started listening to early dubstep and grime, for example. “Music and musical preferences become a mark of personal group identity and of distinction”, Levitin concludes. 

Our personality type influences what we listen to, as well, with the Big Five personality traits being a predictor of our musical preferences. Those with high scores on Openness will be more likely to explore and engage with new, unheard material, for example. We can also tag genres to the Big Five traits, too. According to VeryWellMind, pop music fans are often extroverted, as are hip-hop, jazz and dance music listeners. Heavy metal listeners, on the other hand, tend to be more introverted. If you’re a country music fan, you’re probably more Conscientious. 

What you do while listening to music also has an influence. You’re more likely to listen to upbeat and exciting music when exercising, for example – just take a look at the popularity of YouTube streams like lofi hip hop radio - beats to sleep/study/relax to. The experiences you have when listening to music will determine if you enjoy it. So if you really are relaxing when listening to lofi hip-hop, you’ll probably come back to it, along with music that features similar sounds, rhythms and textures. 

So what about new music? How do we enjoy new genres and styles we’ve never heard before? According to an article by Pitchfork, our brains release dopamine when we hear patterns and progressions we recognise, and music often repeats these patterns – “Adele’s Someone Like You is Bruce Springsteen’s I’m Goin’ Down is Cheap Trick’s I Want You to Want Me is Rachel Platten’s Fight Song and so on”. 

Listening to new music can be hard. Venturing into the unknown is no easy feat and sometimes our brain reacts negatively when we hear unfamiliar things. But it’s important to explore unknown territories and expand your horizons. The music you enjoy now might be the music you're nostalgic of when you are older. The next time you listen to a new album, fix up a nice drink, sit in a comfy chair, put your headphones on and enjoy the new experience. 

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