Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The complaint is heard in every age, “How can anyone listen to that awful music?” The bewilderment is usually generational: the older generation cannot relate to the music of the youth, and the younger generation cannot tolerate the music of their elders. When the youngsters become parents themselves, their objections will mirror those that were once directed at them, and they will face the same opposition they exerted in their earlier years. The drama is repeated whenever two or more generations coexist on the planet. That is to say, it happens all the time.
The disagreement can be framed as rebellion and counter-rebellion. Adolescents push away from their parents, attach themselves to their peers, and assert their youthfulness through music of their own choosing. Meanwhile, the parents become more aggressive in their listening habits, turning their music louder to ensure that their offspring hear it (especially in closed confines like an automobile). Of course, this scenario is not an absolute given. Some families manage to exist in reasonable musical harmony. But disagreement is the norm.
Why is this so? Part of it has to do with the general dynamics of the parent-child relationship. However, there is a deeper reason. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains that musical preferences are essentially fixed by age fourteen, setting the stage for a lifetime of stubborn listening.
Adolescence is a period of tremendous physical and emotional change, and pubertal growth hormones coursing through the body make every experience seem important. This perceived importance does not fade away as we get older, but stays with us in the sanctified form of nostalgia. Musical experiences have a particularly lasting effect, mainly because adolescents are drawn to music as a source of comfort, guidance and identity-formation. And though our tastes can fluctuate as our attitudes shift and we encounter different sounds, the music we liked at age fourteen is favored throughout our lives.
This leads to unavoidable conflict. Whatever music one grew up with is cherished above the music of previous and subsequent eras. As a result, the preferences of youths and adults are never in alignment, no matter who occupies the role of child or adult at a given moment.
A manifestation of this can be seen in houses of worship, where melody choice is an especially heated topic. In that sacred environment, the term “traditional” is often affixed to the music of one’s upbringing. Prayer settings heard or sung around age fourteen are judged to be correct and definitive—not necessarily because of any musical qualities, but because they are part of the soundtrack of that impressionable period. What tends to be forgotten is that those beloved melodies—however well established—were themselves once offensive to an older generation, just as the prayer-songs of today’s youth disturb the ears of many elders.
What seems to be lacking here is empathy. Musical taste is shaped around the same time in everybody’s life. However, because that time is relative to the year a person was born, the sounds adopted differ from those embraced by older and younger people (and those of the same age in different parts of the world). Thus, while we might not like or understand the music others hold dear, we can at least relate to the fondness they have for it.
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