Sciencey Reasons You Should Listen to New Music

Most people stop seeking out new music around their 28th birthdays.

There’s an excitement that comes from listening to a new song, especially one you love. It may become part of one of your playlists, or evoke an emotional response years later, cementing itself into your life and identity.

But at some point, our taste for new music dwindles, eventually reaching a “paralysis” point in our late 20s or early 30s, research suggests.

In 2018, the French streaming service Deezer surveyed 5,000 people and found that, on average, people stopped seeking out new music right around their 28th birthdays. Though the reasons varied, most said saying they were too busy to find new music, or too overwhelmed by all the new releases.

Spotify, in a similar survey in 2015, found people reach that paralysis point in their 30s.

But numerous studies suggest that taking an active interest in music can be beneficial to our brains as we get older. Here’s why you should toss out that 10-year-old driving playlist, and find something new.

New music makes you feel good

As humans, we yearn to feel strong emotions. When that happens, chemicals rush to our brains, causing us to feel pleasure, and sometimes pain.

An illustration of a person in silhouette wearing headphones. Rewire PBS Living New MusicCredit: Adobe
Music, especially a new song you really like, can make your brain really happy.

But, as we get older and enter adulthood, the routine of life can become void of those emotions.

Valorie Salimpoor, author of “The Brain and New Music” and conductor of numerous studies on how humans react to art, says our drive to experience strong emotions is why we like art and music.

“People usually lead fairly routine lives and they don’t get the chance to experience intense emotions that are almost cathartic to us,” Salimpoor said. “As we age we lose opportunities to experience that.”

When we listen to genres of music we like, pleasure centers in our brains connected to strong emotions light up.

“Some of the most powerful chemicals in the brain can be released in response to music,” Salimpoor said. “Humans can experience intense pleasure in response to aesthetic stimuli.”

But those good brain chemicals can be even more powerful when we listen to new music, in anticipation of what may come next, Salimpoor said. As long as a new song adheres to certain patterns our brain is familiar with, its newness can give an added boost.

The pleasure of listening to new music can even help with mental illnesses like depression, especially when it’s enjoyed in a group setting, said Cesar Quililan, a physician at MetroHealth in Orlando.

“(There’s a) joy that music can bring to people’s lives,” Quililan said. “Listening to music in a group setting, for example, adds a social aspect to the activity, which can prevent feelings of isolation. In other words, whether you’re participating in formal music therapy or simply listening to music you enjoy, the end result is a happier, more content life.”

Build new pathways in your brain

Musical genres can define our identities. For many of us, the genres we grew up with are what we will stick with through most of our lives.

But taking some small leaps into new genres can be good for you, and build new pathways in our brains. When we’re young, our brains are like sponges, soaking up the music we hear and storing it in templates so we can recognize other songs and patterns more easily.

“Whatever music you listen to will establish the patterns that are stored in your brain,” Salimpoor said. “In order for your brain to make predictions, you have to be somewhat familiar to the music you’re listening to.”

That means a classical music lover might not enjoy death metal on the first try. But it can help to take some small steps into new and popular genres adjacent to the ones you already like.

With every new style you listen to, your brain is staying active, storing the sounds for later recognition.

Your brain craves anticipation

If you’re getting tired of the songs you used to play over and over, it might be because your brain isn’t giving you the same rewards it used to when you heard those songs.

In his book “The Athlete’s Way: Training Your Mind and Body to Experience the Joy of Exercise,” Christopher Bergland talks about the lottery effect of unpredictability and reward.

Bergland writes that the unpredictability of a new, shuffled playlist can provide a boost in dopamine. Not knowing what to expect gives our brains a higher sense of anticipation. When a new song comes on that isn’t anticipated, we get an added boost of feel-good chemicals, enjoying the release following the unknown.

This can be good for athletes during long workouts and runs, Bergland said, but it can also help with everyday stresses, whether that be at work, in traffic or at home. So for a needed boost, press that shuffle button, sit back, and wait on the edge of your seat for what’s next.

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It’s easy to find cool stuff to listen to

With the amount of new music released daily, “getting back into the game” can be a tall order. But with a little patience and an open mind, taking your hands off the wheel and letting a service do the choosing can open up new doors.

Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music and online blogs have countless playlists to choose from. Like music from the early 2000s? Dive into a “best of” playlist. Want to hear more stuff that sounds like Tame Impala? Check out their Spotify artist page or Google them, and look for collaborations or suggestions for similar artists. If you have a Spotify account, it will deliver a playlist of new music selected especially for you every week.

If you want to stay “hip” with the popular music of the day, top 40 playlists are easy to find. Though every song may not invoke that deep neural pleasure we’re all looking for, there are bound to be some diamonds in the rough. And remember, sometimes it’s more about the journey than the destination.

Taylor Hartman

Taylor Hartman is a writer based in Salt Lake City. He works in marketing at KUED, Utah’s PBS station. He has worked in the news and with the Utah Investigative Journalism Project, and has a deep love for public media, the great outdoors and the arts.