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Study: You probably found your favorite song when you were a teenager

Contributed by
Feb 12, 2018

There's a reason we often refer to our teenage years as "formative." The emotional roller coaster of that rapidly shifting era in life teaches us a lot about the kind of adults we're going to be. We learn what we're good at and, by extension, what we might earn a living at when our educations are complete. We discover sexuality and love and where that might take us. We also discover our pop culture tastes in ways we never did in our childhood. When you're 5 you're just happy that a Disney movie is on. When you're 15 you're arguing with friends over whether the Coen Brothers make better movies than Paul Thomas Anderson.

The same is true of music. The songs you listen to when you're a teenager often impact you in ways no other music ever will. You remember exactly where you were the first time you heard certain tunes, whether you were sobbing uncontrollably over a breakup or dancing at prom. We've all experienced some version of that adolescent emotional connection to music, and it's not just an intangible feeling. There's actually data to back it up. 

In a piece for the New York Times published over the weekend, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz—an expert in consumer behavior and big-data analysis with a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard—used data from the popular music streaming service Spotify to determine which age groups are most likely to listen to specific songs. What he found was a rather consistent (though not universal) pattern: Users love to listen to songs that were popular when they were teens.

As one example, Stephens-Davidowitz looked at the Radiohead classic "Creep," released in 1993. The song is rather popular on Spotify for men in their late 30s, but it didn't crack the top 300 songs listened to by men in their late 40s and their late 20s. According to the data, the men most likely to listen to "Creep" were around 14 when the song first came out. In search of a pattern, Stephens-Davidowitz then looked at chart-topping songs from 1960-2000, and again found that users who were in their early to mid-teens when each song was released were more likely to go back and listen to them again.

Overall, Stephens-Davidowitz found that the most formative music-listening period for women is between the ages of 11-14, with an average of 13. For men, it's 13-16, with an average age of 14. 

"The key years, in fact, match closely with the end of puberty, which tends to happen to girls before boys," he wrote. "This also adds one more piece of evidence to the growing scientific consensus that we never really leave middle school and high school.

"For both men and women, their early 20s were half as influential in determining adult musical tastes as their early teens."

Again, while this analysis does present a pattern consistent with the popular belief that our teenage years shape us, it isn't necessarily universal. Stephens-Davidowitz himself notes that one of his favorite songs—Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run"—isn't a song released in his teen years. You can still find your favorite song or your favorite artist in your 20s (I personally didn't really get into my favorite recording artist, Prince, until that time) or even later. Just know that, no matter when you grew up, that special song you first heard in junior high is probably going to stick with you.

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