Why you stop liking popular music

I don’t really want to write this entry now but I want to get it off my back.

First, here’s an interesting article to read. My brother and I have been harping on the vote-for-ideology phenomenon for a while — as a biased, condescending liberal, I feel that many people who vote Republican do so on the basis of three main issues: gay rights, abortion, and religion. Bush can do whatever crazy things he wants, but as long as he stands firm on these three issues, millions of voters will support him.

Not to say that this is a dumb strategy — if those three things (hating on gays, halting abortions, supporting religion) really mean more to you than anything else, by all means support the candidate that gets them done. The upshot is, as I said, that Bush can get away with a lot of insane stuff because many people simply Don’t Care. He’s even luckier, because he doesn’t even really have to support the big three issues; instead he just has to say he does. Everyone acknowledges that an amendment banning gay marriage will never pass, so Bush just has to say he supports it, and never has to worry about actually having to. Similar story with abortion and religion.

Democrats have a harder time converting voters, since they have to straddle the line on many issues, which is difficult to do and requires a more obvious kind of sleaze.

Anyway, this article confirms some of my suspicions. Some Bush supporters:

That same intensity was palpable the following day, in Beckley, W.Va., where thousands of people like Jim Farnsworth, a 32-year-old telephone technician holding his 1-month-old son, turned out for a rally with Mr. Bush. “Voted for him last time, will vote for him again, would even vote for him a third term if he would run,” Mr. Farnsworth said. “I like the convictions that he stands on. Abortion, family.”

His wife, Tina, chimed in, “His belief in God.”

I love George Bush,” Mr. McQuillen said. “He’s got the same convictions and principles that I have on a lot of things. Course, I don’t agree with everything he stands for, but most of the important things I do.”

Mr. McQuillen, wearing a sticker that declared he was a “Friend of Coal,” added of Mr. Bush, “He’s against big government, he’s against abortion, he’s against gay marriage.”

So, the music thing. We all know the deal about how somewhere between being a kid and being a parent we lose our affinity for popular music (as defined by whatever’s playing on “cool” radio stations at the time). I’ve seen a variety stock explanations for this phenomenon, the most common of which is that we lose our sense of rebelliousness, and stop becoming open to new sounds.

I have an alternate explanation that sounds obvious (and, I guess, probably is), but relies on a couple of only semi-obvious claims.

Claim 1. Most music on the radio over the last 50 years is essentially the same.
Well, duh, you say. Agreed, I say. This one is pretty obvious. Songs still go verse-chorus-verse-chorus, rock relies on the major third all the time and the blues scale for solos, rap is just flow over different beats. This is not to say that there aren’t good songs and bad songs, given this formula — there certainly are. (Consider the amazing results given the classical symphony form.) There are many different kinds of music, but each kind has stayed pretty faithfully on course for years or decades now.

Claim 2. All things equal, you’ll like your first exposure to a new sound more than subsequent exposures.
This manifests itself in a small way all the time: assuming all the albums are of equal quality, you are going to like the first album you hear by a band more than the ones you get afterwards. After all, it’s the one that exposed you to the novelties of the band’s sound, and the one that made you a fan. Later albums also suffer from having to meet your raised expectations. I’ve found this to be true for myself numerous times. You may want to look at your CD collection and think about which albums by each band you like best, and try to remember the order in which you got them.

In a larger sense, Claim 2 is why people have an amazing soft spot for the music they listened to during junior high and the beginning of high school. That’s when you probably first started listening to music seriously, and so it was your first major exposure to lots of different genres. Again, all things equal, you’re just going to like that stuff more than the things you hear now that are in the same vein.

So what do we have here? As you grow older, you are exposed to more kinds of music. Each time you hear a new kind, you acquire a taste for it, usually in the form of CDs by bands that are popular at the time you hear it. Eventually (and this takes many years), you’ve “gotten” pretty much all the major kinds of music out there. This probably happens in your mid-to-late twenties. The stuff on the radio is, by Claim 1, similar enough, genre-by-genre, that, by Claim 2, you prefer your first taste of those genres rather than what’s new. So you “fall out of touch” with “the new generation”, or whatever they say. It’s not because you can’t get used to new music; it’s because you’ve heard it all before.

This process just happens to coincide with other forms of maturation, which is probably why its effects are usually explained by these other mechanisms.

Obviously, I have no evidence for this theory at all (but then again, does anyone about any of these theories? no.) except my own experience. Already when I listen to a new song on the radio I can predict with some success the right chord changes, loud-soft dynamic shifts, and even entire lines of lyrics. Why listen to Band 2004 when I can listen to my own CDs, which are in many cases not much better, but at least have some sentimental value and pseudo-novelty attached to them?

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8 Responses to Why you stop liking popular music

  1. cychan says:

    I love this post. I don’t quite agree entirely with it, but it makes some very interesting points. For example, while I’d agree that all pop music in the last 50 years follows pretty much the same form (verse, chorus, bridge, whatever), I’d say it’s the artist’s rendition of that form that people are first attracted to, not the form itself. People who liked the Beatles are more likely to dislike heavy metal because of the way the verse and chorus sound (and the lyrics), not because they say, “Hey, verse followed by chorus! This has definitely been done before.”

    That said, I’d agree with this entirely if you limit it to genre. Not all the genres that appear on the pop music scene today have been around for very long. Hip hop appeared in the 80s, grunge appeared in the 90s, etc. People who had never had exposure to grunge until the 90s may love it because it “sounds” new even though it has the same form as 60s rock and roll. More likely, they’ll hate it because it sounds so different from what they grew up with.

    Anyways, I’ve also found that chord changes in pop music are very predictable. Often, I can hum along (harmony, not melody obviously) to songs that I’ve never heard before. One song that I loved because it kept throwing me off was Josh Groban’s Oceano, which I heard my officemate play a few months ago. Unpredictable chord changes into minor keys really get me.

    • aj says:

      I meant genre!

      Well I think we entirely agree, because I meant genre! When I said all music was the same, I meant that all music in a particular genre almost by definition is similar. (Thus my examples of rock and rap, and “There are many different kinds of music, but each kind has stayed pretty faithfully on course for years or decades now.” … maybe not decades. But for the lifetime of the genre.) When I say “kind of music” in my little essay, I mean “genre”. Maybe a re-reading with that interpretation might make my ramblings clearer :).

      I think it takes a while for people to be exposed to enough genre and enough music in each of those genres to “get” what’s going on at the time. Of course, you’re right — new genres do come along and they can be initially captivating. (Witness all the soccer moms now who love R&B and hip hop.)

  2. ngj says:

    I think I like this idea–Although at the moment I wonder if I really am going to fall out of touch with pop. And I have to agree that things do get repetitive.

    So here’s a somewhat related question. Do you know of any “unique” songs that break the established patterns, that have no songs quite like it?

    • aj says:


      Yeah, I know plenty. I guess that’s the upside of spending a gazillion dollars on CDs each year :). I’m certainly generalizing when I say all songs in a genre sound the same. In some sense, this is a self-fulfilling claim — if two songs sound similar, they’re probably going to be lumped into the same genre.

      However, there are plenty of songs that are genre-less, and plenty of artists who are skilled at playing with genres. In fact, some of the best songs I know subvert a genre in just the right way — they’re similar enough to be easy to like, and different enough to be very interesting.

      That said, within genres there are many wonderful songs. And songs that are genreless can suck. Looking at songs in this way is just another level of intellectual play that can be rewarding but also may not connect with you at all in a visceral way.

      (You probably don’t want me to get started on my “what is the essence of a song?” stuff. I think I listen to enough music that I’m sure to start boring people with my thoughts eventually :).

  3. jtlu says:

    wow this is such an interesting post! just yesterday i was looking through my mp3 collection and wondering why it’s filled with cheesy early to mid 90’s songs that they would never play on the radio anymore, but that i still really enjoy.

    • aj says:

      Yeah, I have such a ridiculous soft spot for that stuff.

      If I look ath the mp3s I’ve collected from the Internet — not all the albums I’ve burned — at least half of them are sentimental songs from my youth. Sometimes when I’m trying to make a mix, I’m really tempted to put some of those songs on there… and then I realize that they probably only sound really good to me :).

  4. wingerz says:

    another interesting thing to consider is the way that teenagers access music now – back in the day, i was pretty much stuck listening to whatever was on the radio, and so were all of my friends. now it’s a lot easier for kids with computers to find just about anything that they’re looking for. i guess the question is whether the appeal of pop music is enough to keep listeners who have a choice.

    • aj says:

      That’s a good point

      But I guess the problem is, how do they know what to look for, other than the stuff they hear on the radio and on TRL? I guess it could be via word of mouth, a decidedly un-technological (but very powerful) technique!