The study is the first to "comprehensively document" the ways people engage with music "from adolescence to middle age", researchers said. (Agencies)
Using data gathered from more than a quarter of a million people over a ten year period, researchers divided musical genres into five broad, "empirically derived" categories they call the MUSIC model - mellow, unpretentious, sophisticated, intense, contemporary - and plotted the patterns of preference across age-groups.
The study found that the first great musical age is adolescence - defined by a short, sharp burst of 'intense' and the start of a steady climb of 'contemporary'.
'Intense' music - such as punk and metal - peaks in adolescence and declines in early adulthood, while 'contemporary' music - such as pop and rap - begins a rise that plateaus until early middle age.
"Teenage years are often dominated by the need to establish identity, and music is a cheap, effective way to do this," said Dr Jason Rentfrow, senior researcher on the study.
"'Intense' music, seen as aggressive, tense and characterized by loud, distorted sounds has the rebellious connotations that allow adolescents to stake a claim for the autonomy that is one of this period's key 'life challenges'," Rentfrow said.
"As 'intense' gives way to the rising tide of 'contemporary' and introduction of 'mellow' - such as electronic and R & B - in early adulthood, the next musical age emerges," researchers write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "These two "preference dimensions" are considered "romantic, emotionally positive and danceable," they said.
"Once people overcome the need for autonomy, the next 'life challenge' concerns finding love and being loved - people who appreciate this 'you' that has emerged," Rentfrow said.
As we settle down and middle age begins to creep in, the last musical age, as identified by the researchers, is dominated by 'sophisticated' - such as jazz and classical - and 'unpretentious' - such as country, folk and blues.
Researchers write that both these dimensions are seen as "positive and relaxing" - with 'sophisticated' indicating the complex aesthetic of high culture that could be linked to social status and perceived intellect, while 'unpretentious' echoes sentiments of family, love and loss.
"Due to our very large sample size, gathered from online forms and social media channels, we were able to find very robust age trends in musical taste. I find it fascinating to see how seemingly trivial behaviour such as music listening relates to so many psychological aspects, such as personality and age," said Arielle Bonneville-Roussy from Cambridge's Department of Psychology, who led the study.
The study is the first to "comprehensively document" the ways people engage with music "from adolescence to middle age", researchers said.