The Music You Love as a Teen Shapes Your Taste Forever


As people grow older they’ll still return, time and time again, to the music that first enraptured them as teenagers. So if you’ve ever wondered, “Why the hell are New Kids on the Block still successfully touring despite not having any hits since 1990?,” here’s your answer!

It’s been clear for awhile now that people are typically nostalgic for the music they grew up on, but a recent analysis of Spotify data confirms that when you look at the most popular songs among certain age groups they typically got into those songs when they were teenagers. New York Times writer Seth Stephens-Davidowitz uses Radiohead’s “Creep” as just one example, pointing out it’s the 174th most popular song among men who are 38 years old right now. Not surprising! And those same men were around 14 years old when the song came out in 1993. By looking at other popular songs, the article finds that women tend to come to their favorite songs at around 13, but for men it happens a little bit later when they’re 14—so basically when puberty begins.

There’s documented science behind this phenomenon too. In a Slate story about why music we love as teenagers stays with us so strongly, the connection is found to have a lot to do with neural activity in the brains of young people:

Between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good. When we make neural connections to a song, we also create a strong memory trace that becomes laden with heightened emotion, thanks partly to a surfeit of pubertal growth hormones. These hormones tell our brains that everything is incredibly important—especially the songs that form the soundtrack to our teenage dreams (and embarrassments).

In general, pretty much every little bit of culture you’re exposed to during puberty makes a much stronger impression on you. A 2013 New York Magazine piece on why we never truly leave high school (terrifying, I know) quotes Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University. “There’s no reason why, at the age of 60, I should still be listening to the Allman Brothers,” Steinberg says. “Yet no matter how old you are, the music you listen to for the rest of your life is probably what you listened to when you were an adolescent.” And that’s because your prefrontal cortex, which governs your ability to reason, reflect, and control impulses, gives people, just before adolescence, an increased ability to develop “the notion of a self.”

So Lil Yachty aka “King of the Teens” may not be a teen forever, and neither will his fans, but the love they have for him will last a lifetime. Isn’t that sweet? And while I’m not typically the kind of person who wants to shame the music tastes of a teenage girl, in light of this new research I’d suggest that if you see any 13-year-olds listening to Ed Sheeran please politely through their iPhone into the sea.

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