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The 'Science’ of Music: Why Does the Appeal for Pop Tunes Fade With Age?

Every generation believes the literature, cinema, and music of their age eclipse the ones produced by their progeny.

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Music
4 min read
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"Things have gone to the dogs nowadays. They were much better when we were younger."

Depending on your age, you may have either heard or uttered these words at some point. When one is expressing this sentiment, 'things’ is merely a placeholder; the innocuous word can unfurl itself and swell in meaning to include anything: the current state of politics, the environment, the nation, and of course, the Arts.

Every generation believes that the literature, cinema, and music of their age eclipse the ones produced (and consumed) by their progeny.
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The Dilution of the Pop Music Phenomenon

For the most part, this grouse can sound petulant and baseless. After all, it is impossible to judge the objective merits of subjective artistic preferences. But when it comes to pop music and the lyrics that are belted out, science can sometimes help.

If you are someone who baulks at tracks which also double as staple listens such as Calm Down (the monster hit created by Rema, featuring Selena Gomez), you have reasons to celebrate. Recent research shows that your distaste for modern music may indeed have a rational founding.

According to a new study published a few weeks ago, popular song lyrics have become "simpler and more repetitive".

Based on a data set of over 300,000 English-language songs – spanning multiple genres – released between 1970 and 2020, the researchers discovered that today’s hits are more likely to have a higher prevalence of repeated lines and more chorus sections.

As it happens, these findings are not novel.

In 2021, academics at North American Universities undertook a project to analyse the lyrical complexity of American popular music. One of their primary observations was that "popular music lyrics have become increasingly simple over time."

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Can Lyricial Simplicity Not Pass Off As Great Music?

These reports may tempt you to mock the fans of modern music whether English numbers or desi beats; to ridicule those who sway to the inane rhymes and loopy hooks of Bieber and Badshah. However, this merits a moment of introspection.

The words of a song – particularly when tackling the human condition or offering social commentary – can certainly play an integral role in determining if it deserves the accolade of a 'classic'.

While a great many hits of yesteryears did fulfill this onerous criterion, not every chart-topper from the past can boast of possessing intricate, evocative poetry. If writing in popular music is accused of being bereft of quality today, there were modest verses in the past as well.
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You would be hard-pressed, for example, to find literary depth in the song Jump by Van Halen. It is one of the greatest rock songs of all time but not even its fiercest defenders would claim lyrical complexity as one of its virtues. (If anything, it could be deemed a bit too literal for using the word 'jump' 23 times.)

So, if lyrical superiority is not such a slam dunk after all, why do those who are old continue championing the songs of their youth?
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What Explains Loyalty To Our Musical Choices?

Psychologists offer many reasons to explain our zealous allegiance to our fossilised playlists. In a 2018 column in The New York Times, the Economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz used data from Spotify (the music streaming platform) to show how even as we grow older, we remain partial to the music we discovered in our teenage years.

Once our choices are locked in by early adolescence, we tend to stick to them for the rest of our lives. One possible explanation for this phenomenon is based on the principle of 'mere exposure effect’ – a cognitive bias that results in people responding positively to a stimulus due to repeated exposure.

According to this theory, teenagers and young adults have ample time to explore and build a relationship with the type of music they enjoy. This is the period when we form preferences and curate the songs that become our comfort blankets.
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Later, as the tedium of adulthood lays claim to our lives, we do not have the luxury of meandering through the musical landscape seeking new discoveries. Instead, we return to what feels safe and familiar. While this proposition does have some merit, it is not foolproof.

Other theories posit that the stunting of our musical taste is not just a function of time management; it is a natural consequence of growing older.
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Why New Music Appeals Lesser As We Age?

A research paper published by neuroscientists in 2015 claimed that the brain’s ability to distinguish between certain categories of sounds begins to deteriorate over time. As a result, differences in some chord patterns can be less perceptible to middle-aged people.

Moreover, ageing neurons struggle to represent rapid sound fluctuations which can make new music – with its new patterns – sound less appealing. To be fair, a decaying brain being the reason why Dua Lipa’s blockbuster single One Kiss gives you a headache, is a compelling argument.

As these research studies suggest, perhaps we are biologically programmed to shun contemporary music and cling to the dulcet tunes of our childhood. Perhaps, plagued by advancing age and faulty memory, we are meant to reject the now and revel in nostalgia.
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If this knowledge provides scant comfort when you’re lecturing a youngster about the mediocrity of autotuned synth-pop EDM and they roll their eyes at you, take heart. One day they, too, will be in your shoes.

(The author is a writer and lawyer based in Mumbai. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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