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Why Do People Care Less About Music as They Get Older?

Taylor Swift’s new album, 1989, has sold over 1.5 million copies so far—and not just to teenage girls. A Time reporter admitted his whole office was upset they couldn’t stream the album on Spotify. "Saturday Night Live" suggests a “cure” for adult Swift fans.

Swift may have cross-generational appeal, but there’s a difference between how kids and adults respond to music. In a 2013 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a team of psychologists, led by Arielle Bonneville-Roussy at the University of Cambridge, designed a study to look at how our music-listening habits and attitudes toward music change over the course of our lives.

Other researchers had observed correlations between various personality traits and taste in music: preference for classical music and jazz is positively associated with openness, imagination, liberal values, and verbal ability; preference for “intense” music like heavy metal and punk is correlated with sociability and physical attractiveness.

But how do these preferences change with age? “Just as normative changes in personality occur throughout the life span,” reason Bonneville-Roussy and her co-authors, “it seems reasonable to expect normative changes might also occur in musical preferences.”

The Cambridge psychologists recruited over 9,000 people online, and surveyed them about their music tastes and habits. About half the participants were British, half American; they were evenly divided by gender; their ethnicities were nationally representative; and, most importantly, their ages ranged from as young as 13 to as old as 65. First, researchers asked them to estimate how many hours they spent listening to music on an average weekday and an average weekend day, either actively listening to music they had chosen or passively listening to music that was on in the background. Across the sample, participants reported spending an average of 16.2 hours per week listening to music; their answers ranged from 0 to 96. Older respondents tended to spend less time listening to music: 18-year-olds reported spending the most time listening to music—25 hours per week; at the other end of the spectrum, 58-year-olds logged only 12 hours.

The psychologists also asked respondents to choose which of five statements on the role of music in their lives they agreed with:

“Music means a lot to me, and is a passion of mine”

“Music is important to me, but not necessarily more important than other hobbies or interests”

“I like music, but it does not feature heavily in my life”

“Music is no longer as important as it used to be to me”

“Music has no particular interest for me” 

Across all age groups, 31 percent said that music meant a lot to them; 38 percent indicated that it was important, but on par with other hobbies; 26 percent said it did not feature heavily in their lives; 4 percent said it was less important than it used to be; and just one percent admitted they had no real interest in it. Younger people tended to be much more passionate about music: 41 percent of the youngest age group—the 13-year-olds said music meant a lot to them, and the numbers dwindled from there—all the way down to 13 percent of 65-year-olds. More than twice as many 65-year-olds as 13-year-olds said that music did not feature heavily in their lives. The proportion of people who said music was about as important as their other hobbies was similar across the life span—from 38 percent of 13-year-olds to 35 percent of 65-year-olds.

The researchers also looked at six contexts in which people might listen to music: at home alone, at home with friends, out with friends, at work, in the car, or doing housework. The most common context was in the car, followed by home alone; overall, younger respondents were more likely to listen to music in public as well as private settings. The research doesn’t show, though, whether these differences are due to aging or generational shifts; listening to music on iPod and laptops, buying individual tracks on iTunes and walking around with headphones has undoubtedly changed the way we relate to music.