Rock of ages: academics’ music tastes revealed

Arjun Sajip 31 October 2013

Research by scientists at the University of Cambridge has suggested that broad shifts in our music tastes take place over our lifetime. Led by Arielle Bonneville-Roussy, of the Department of Psychology, the team posits that despite music tastes being linked to individual personality and experience, there are identifiable trends in most people’s tastes that correspond with stages in life.

TCS emailed twenty academics asking them how their music tastes changed from adolescence to early adulthood to middle age. Responses were not only encouragingly enthusiastic, but confirmed the study’s findings. Dr Henning Grunwald, of the History Faculty, claimed that when in his teenage years, Aha, Madonna and the Stones Roses were pipped to the post by his love for Pixies’ 1989 album Doolittle – although he claims he “can still sing all of [the songs on the Rolling Stones compilation Hot Rocks] by heart, more or less”. Dr Grunwald’s ‘early adult’ favourite was The Bends by Radiohead, while his current top album is the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication – although the exigencies of fatherhood mean that he also enjoys the musical company of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and the White Stripes.

This correlates with Bonneville-Roussy’s findings. The team, who analysed data from over a quarter of a million people over a ten-year period, came up with five broad, “empirically derived” categories to create ‘the MUSIC model’ – Mellow, Unpretentious, Sophisticated, Intense, and Contemporary. ‘Intense’ music usually peaks in adolescence and begins to decline in early adulthood, while ‘Contemporary’ music is increasingly listened to until it plateaus off shortly before early middle-age. This is accompanied by a rising predilection for ‘Mellow’ music, mellow and contemporary together creating “romantic, emotionally positive and danceable” music, according to the researchers.

Senior researcher Dr Jason Rentfrow, claims: “Whereas the first musical age is about asserting independence, the next appears to be more about gaining acceptance from others.”

As we enter middle age, the last musical stage to be identified is the ‘Sophisticated and Unpretentious’ stage, which includes genres such as classical, jazz, country and blues. ‘Sophisticated’ music can tie into ‘high culture’, social status and perceived intellect, while ‘Unpretentious’ music is linked to sentiments of love, loss, and family.

Of the three academics that responded, two of them chose Pixies’ Doolittle as a former or current favourite; the other one was History professor William O’Reilly, who also listed Massive Attack, Violent Femmes, and David Bowie’s 2002 album Heathen as top picks. Currently, he claims to listen to the Vaccines, Bloc Party, and PJ Harvey “over and over”.

The first academic to respond, Trinity Hall English fellow Dr Ewan Jones, claimed that his tastes shifted from Talking Heads to electro duo Autechre to his current top album, Julia Holter’s Loud City Song – a trajectory that fits the researchers’ findings very well.

According to Bonneville-Roussy, the trends are “very robust”.