How To Get Back Into New Music – And Why It's So Good For You

Many of us stop listening to new music at 30, studies show – but here's why you shouldn't.

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Discovering new music, for many, shaped us as we grew up. We’d listen to tunes at home with our cassette players, discuss songs with friends, buy our favourite CDs, or watch the music channels for hours on end.

For some people, this love of new music continues into adult life. But for others, a passion for it vanishes. Research confirms this: a 2018 study by Deezer found our ability to intake new music depletes by around age 30, due to stresses such as work, having families, and the fact that many feel there’s too much music to engage with.

Instead, many of us feel nostalgic for the music of our youth – that’s probably why ’80s nights are so popular for middle-aged people now, or why ’90s and noughties resurgences are becoming popular in digital culture.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, says Victoria Williamson, lecturer and researcher in music psychology and author of You Are The Music. “Nostalgia from music listening experiences is an important part of most people’s lives and wellbeing – there is no shame in relying on it on a regular basis,” she says.

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But why is it so common to revert to music of our youth, rather than seeking out new tunes? “The brain circuitry that connects music, memories and emotions is hardwired to our pleasure responses, driven by the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine,” says Williamson.

“Studies suggest most people form their music listening preferences between the ages of 17-23 using this system, and then go on to utilise it for the purpose of wellbeing throughout their adult life.”

If you want to get back into new music, though, there are ways to hack this brain circuitry – even if your life feels busy and your priorities have changed.

Why should you get into new music?

Firstly, it nourishes our brains. “New music listening activates areas of the brain from root to tip, from the early auditory processing centres to the outer reaches of our cortex,” says Williamson. “Creating memories with new music across the lifespan also provides the potential to add to our valuable music memory bank.”

It also acts as social cue, helping us better understand other people, “since there has never been a human culture found on earth that has not produced music for some purpose,” says Williamson, adding that music is one of the most powerful universal languages.

Alexandra Lamont, professor of Music Psychology at Keele University, says some of her previous study participants have reported such benefits as making new friends, travelling more and becoming familiar with new technologies in order to engage with new music communities.

Best of all might be music’s ability to keep us open-minded, which experts believe is key to helping us think better, as psychologist Kendra Cherry writes.

“We have conducted studies that show a definite link between openness to listening to new and different music and open-mindedness,” says Lyz Cooper, founder and principal of The British Academy of Sound Therapy.

“When you’re open-minded, you tend to be more resilient and adaptable to changes in your life (something that is much needed now!). With this comes more mental and emotional stability and the ability to ‘roll with the punches’, think on your feet and strategise.”

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How to listen to new music again

New music listening may not feel as natural (nor as enjoyable) as it used to – it may take time. “It’s like driving in a new area without a map,“says Williamson. “Our attention is all over the place and we struggle to appreciate our surroundings when faced with the challenge of constantly unfolding novelty.”

Our brains can’t rely on memory to the same extent as with our favourite songs. “But,” she adds, “it’s a perfect challenge for the frontal areas of the brain, which are activated when exposed to complex new patterns in our environment.”

“Listen with intent,” advises Williamson. “Give the task of listening the attention it needs. That’s not to say you can only hope to listen to new music in a devoted manner. If background listening works in your life, you could try to engage with it as part of new habits to create a pairing associated.”

Opportunities for starting to listen to new music may be restarting an old exercise routine, exploring the possibilities of a new music listening device, or as part a new element of the daily routine, suggests Williamson.

“Give the task of listening the attention it needs.”

- Victoria Williamson, lecturer and researcher in music psychology and author of You Are The Music

Music is a strong bonding activity, too. A recent trend noticed by Lamont, of Keele University, is music sharing within families. “Parents are more likely to share music with their children, finding out about newer styles and going to concerts with them,” she says. “Our participants talk about the importance of such intergenerational sharing for building good family relations.”

If new music intake is more for personal gain than social interaction, making playlists attuned to the mood you’re aiming for is a great option, says Cooper, of The British Academy of Sound Therapy.

“Let’s say the answer was ‘I need to be kinder to myself’, then I would suggest seeking out and making a playlist of music that represents kindness,” she says. “This re-trains the pathways in the brain that associate music with memory and emotion and may help someone feel more comfortable with trying new things.”

Where to find it

There’s plenty of ways to search for new tunes virtually. Perhaps the easiest is using streaming platforms like Spotify, which features new artists in their Discover Weekly section. YouTube also has a new music section to explore.

If you want to go further off-piste, bookmark a music website or blog you dive into once a week – or once a month. The giant of new music journalism is Pitchfork, which reviews the best new releases in detail, and throws up more unique results than YouTube and Spotify.

Other good websites to use for independent new music selections spanning all genres include The Line Of Best Fit and The Quietus.

If it’s something more mainstream you’re after, try scouring Popjustice or the Official Charts website, which is updated by the experts and celebrates lots of new artists. Into electronic music? Dummy, DJ Mag and Mixmag are your go-tos for something more likely to get you on the dance floor.

So, enjoy! And remember: listening to new music won’t just win you new mates or give you something new to focus your lockdown pent-up energy on, it could broaden your mind and make you open to new opportunities.

This new year, we focus on fun, not denial (because we’ve all had enough of that). Follow our month-long plan, with a new ‘Here, Try This’ idea each day, spanning easy ways to engage your body and mind, inspiration for your food and home, and tips for boosting how you feel – inside and out.

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