We all love our teenage tunes best
Bob Seidenstein’s July 24 column, “Schlock and roll,” brings to mind the way every generation grows up thinking “their” music — i.e., the pop music of their adolescence — is the only thing worth listening to. When Don McLean sings “the day the music died” in his 1971 hit “American Pie,” he refers to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (the “Big Bopper”) on Feb. 3, 1959, in Clear Lake, Iowa.
But to my dad, “the day the music died” could only refer to the death of Glenn Miller while the famed band leader was serving in the European theater during World War II. My dad knew that big band sound inside and out. He even paid his way through college and supported his parents playing drums in those big bands during their heyday of the 1930s.
And yet when I told him I’d learned my first Charlie Parker song, he had to pause to remember who Charlie Parker was. All Parker did was usher in the bebop jazz era that followed the big band era in 1945. My dad, however, never spoke of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie nor anybody else who followed the big bands. To him it was all about Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and the like. Nobody before them, and definitely nobody after them.
So don’t even think about talking to him about such musical miscreants as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin.
To many of us, this may be all about taste, intelligence, upbringing and a host of other nature-vs.-nurture issues. But to neuroscientist (and former rocker) Daniel J. Levitin, it has a lot to do with adolescent brain development. In his 2006 publication “This Is Your Brain on Music,” Levitin writes, “Researchers point to the teen years as the turning point for musical preferences. It is around the age of ten or eleven that most children take on music as a real interest. … As adults, the music we tend to be nostalgic for, the music that feels like it is ‘our’ music, corresponds to the music we heard during these years.”
Levitin points especially to age 14 as a particular time of self-discovery that is so emotionally charged that even people with Alzheimer’s disease can still remember how to sing songs they learned at that age.
“… it is around fourteen that the wiring of our musical brains is approaching adultlike levels of completion,” he writes. “Also, our brains are developing and forming new connections at an explosive rate throughout adolescence, but this slows down substantially after our teenage years, the formative phase when our neural circuits become structured out of our experiences.”
I swore I would never be as closed-minded about pop music the way my dad was, but I just stopped listening to it after college because none of it appealed to me.
So, kids of the new millennia, next time your parents try to convince you that the music you and your friends listen to is pure garbage compared to the sacred nature of what those of your parents’ generation listened to at your age, I suggest you give them a knowing smile, chalk it up to the natural stages of brain development, and try to forgive them.
And maybe even get them a copy of “This Is Your Brain on Music” for their birthdays.
Steve Lester lives in Lake Placid, reviews Lake Placid Sinfonietta concerts for the Lake Placid News, and is a retired musician from the U.S. Army Bands and a former music adjunct instructor at Jefferson Community College in Watertown.