Is This Your Song? The Science Behind What Determines Your Taste In Music

by Alexia LaFata

We've all been through this scenario. You start playing a song for your friend that you are positive is incredible, only to watch as her face drops in the disappointed aftermath of a too-high anticipation level when the part you said is "the best!" is, to her, mediocre at best.

You will the song to play faster and reach the bridge quicker, but even the triumphant key change doesn't do it. She absolutely hates it and there's nothing you can do to change her mind.

How is it that your favorite band in the entire world, the band that got you through breakups, your parents' divorce and your high school graduation, does not evoke the same wild emotions in your friend as it evokes in you?

How is it that she doesn't get those same chills you get during the chorus or feel the weight of the words' meanings as heavily as you do?

What really determines the music that you -- and others -- come to fall in love with?

If you and your friend grew up in different areas during adolescence, chances are that you'll have different music tastes. Your music taste, it turns out, is almost completely solidified by your teen years.

It is around age 10 that we start to formulate our musical interests, even if we had no prior interest in music.

During the teenage years that follow, self-discovery is in full swing and emotions are heightened, so we are ultra sensitive to all kinds of music.

As a teen, your brain "tags" emotionally-charged, prepubescent moments as important, and whatever music you listen to throughout these emotional times -- the oldies your parents listen to, someone's song on MySpace, popular music on the radio, your older brother's indie jams -- acquires deep meaning and is fair game for shaping your permanent music taste.

Most of this time, especially around age 12, we listen to whatever our friends are listening to in order to place ourselves into a specific social circle. And fitting in the with popular kids in middle school probably meant that you'd better like Britney Spears.

At 14, the wiring of your brain that will determine your music taste almost reaches adult-like completion. At this age, we discover that whole worlds of music and people exist outside the confines of what we know.

We're rambunctious, exploratory and experimenting, and we realize that we don't have to abide by our parents' rules, so we smear on the black eyeliner and listen to System of a Down. We're absorbing information like a sponge, and it all influences our taste.

We end up liking some stuff, we end up hating some stuff.

Think about it. Is your music taste really that different from what it was when you were a young teenager? Maybe a little bit refined, maybe a new genre thrown in here or there, but, for the most part, you likely still get excited listening to that song from your 8th grade dance.

When we hit 18-20, our music taste is essentially solidified. It's not an exact cutoff, but it's pretty close. Researchers estimate that by this age, we've become less open-minded, and our neural circuits become almost fully structured based around our experiences, leaving little wiggle room for new associations.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says it's possible to expand musical tastes as an adult, but, "if we had relatively narrow tastes in our developing years, this is more difficult to do because we lack the appropriate schemas, or templates, with which to process and ultimately to understand new musical forms."

So that's why it took me this long to get into Radiohead.

What's worse is that popular music is subjected to a basic, unchanging formula, and if you grew up on this kind of duplicated music during your teens, you're so indoctrinated that you'll probably hate anything different or unique later in life.

In fact, the concept of "unique" music hardly exists. A study called Measuring Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music reports that new songs are only "new" because they're literally just made to be louder, which tricks us into thinking they're new.

After analyzing over 464,411 music recordings, researchers noticed that melodies and sounds of the instruments used have remained consistently stable, but pitch, sound and loudness changes. 

New technologies in mastering and compression techniques have caused songs to increase in volume, while rhythms stay similar.

A song is not new. It's just louder. Your grandma was right.

How you're feeling when you listen to a song can also completely determine whether or not you like it. This correlation is so strong that your brain actually starts to manipulate itself into said emotional state when you listen to the song.

This works both ways, too: Your mood can even influence what music you listen to and your opinion of a song.

Ultimately, however, you can't choose the emotional connection you get from songs. Instead, your subconscious brands a song with imagery, memories and associations with people who you may not have thought about in years -- and there's nothing you can do about it.

And if the imprinting is positive, you'll want more of a similar-sounding song. Hell, even if the imprinting is negative, you may want more. Humans are addictive and masochistic, after all.

All in all, although there aren't extremely clear links between who you are and what your music preference is, people often use one's music taste as an indicator of one's personality. 

Studies show that people talk about music the most when they first meet somebody because they believe music taste tells a lot about a person, and in certain cases, it can be true. In other cases, like with my love for Snoop Dogg, I don't think it says too much.

Well, except that I really, really ask you not to judge me based on my love for Snoop Dogg.