The Golden Age of Music, Defined in an NYU Psych Lab

Psychology professor Pascal Wallisch led a study with undergraduate students about generational music preferences.

Facade of the NYU Department of Psychology (via NYU)

To many in Generation X, the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s are idealized as the golden age of music. According to a new psychological study at NYU, younger generations might feel the same way.

In this study, NYU Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology Pascal Wallisch and a team of undergraduates found that music from the ’60s to the ’90s is significantly more recognizable to younger generations, in a collective memory bank more stable than the years before or after the time period. Titled “Who remembers the Beatles? The collective memory for popular music,” the study surveyed approximately 650 millennials in the greater New York area over the course of a year. Undergraduates had the rare opportunity to co-author the paper.

In fall 2014, then-undergraduate and study co-author of the study Stephen Spivack approached Wallisch, and expressed his interest in studying music in the context of psychology. It was not until summer 2015 that the study became concrete, when the team selected the music and created 5-, 10- and 15-second audio clips. Wallisch and colleagues began recording data in late 2016, ending in spring 2017.

“The question was ‘are you aware of things before you are born?’” Wallisch said. “The idea that millennials are oblivious [to] anything that happened before they were born, it’s just not true.” 

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The team’s study found three distinct phases in the public’s memory of popular music from the ’60s to the ’90s: The first phase demonstrated a steep decrease in participants’ abilities to recognize music from this millennium, which declined annually from 2015 to 2000. The second phase was a “stable plateau from the 1960s to the 1990s,” with participants maintaining stable recognition of songs released during this 40-year period. The third phase highlighted a gradual drop in the ability to recognize songs from the ’40s and ’50s.

Some songs easily recognized by the younger generation were “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge, “Baby Come Back” by Player and “The Tide Is High” by Blondie. Whereas, other tunes such as  “Knock Three Times” by Dawn, “I’m Sorry” by John Denver and “Truly” by Lionel Richie went largely unrecognized by the sample.

“The music from the ’60s was much different than music from the ’50s,” Wallisch said of why the music of the later decade may be more present in collective memory. “[It is] much more political, much more culturally charged. When I conceived this, I thought there would be some time in which the music recognition would fall to zero because if you play music from the ’40s, I’d be like, ‘I have no idea.’”

One possible explanation for a surge in the younger generations’ knowledge of their parents’ music is the accessibility millennials have to songs from past decades. There are over 200 million worldwide users on Spotify alone, according to the company’s official Q3 2018 report. In fact, there was a significant relationship between the likelihood of recognizing a given song and its corresponding play count on Spotify.

“Spotify was launched in 2008, well after nearly 90 percent of the songs we studied were released,” Wallisch said in a statement. “[This] indicates millennials are aware of the music that, in general, preceded their lives and are nonetheless choosing to listen to it.”

The findings showed no statistical differences between the NYU and non-NYU groups. The sample surveyed largely consisted of young participants, with an average age of 21.3 years. Eighty-eight percent of participants surveyed were between the ages of 18 and 25. Each participant in the study was presented with a random selection of seven out of 152 songs, listened to an excerpt of the track and reported whether they recognized it or not.

“The bigger question is ‘how can we learn from history?’” Wallisch said. “And of course, to learn from history, we have to know it first.”

A version of this article appears in the Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, print edition. Email Nicole Rosenthal at [email protected].

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