Music Is the Soundtrack of Lifelong Learning

mental concerns with aging Frank Sinatra was, to put it mildly, the brainy and brawny enforcer of music’s old guard. He said of rock-and-roll (back when it was personified by Elvis and Buddy Holly) that it was the “most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.” That was before he heard “Something,” George Harrison’s achingly gorgeous tune from Abbey Road (an album that the Chairman would no doubt have hated). However, he said “Something” was the “greatest love song of the last 50 years,” and even did a famous cover of it.

Of course, many Beatles fans hated the music that came out in the 70s and 80s, and those fans don’t want to listen to what’s coming out today. Many have very Sinatra-esque feelings about it. As we age, we tend to stay with the culture of our youth, and while it is fine to love what you love, we also need to recognize that aging doesn’t have to mean standing still. Aging is not the end of life—it is a continuation of life’s journey, which means a constant process of self-discovery. Finding new things to love and discovering new experiences can be a vital part of that.

Understanding and Overcoming Taste Freeze

There’s a reason why certain culture appeals to us (we’ll be focusing on music here, which is the most ubiquitous form of pop culture, but the same lessons can be drawn for books, movies, TV shows, or anything else). Obviously, taste and our cultural background have a lot to do with it—if you grew up in the Bay Area in the 40s, you might not have been exposed to a lot of bluegrass. More than that, though, is personal experience. Music has created a literal soundtrack to our lives and is in the background of our memories. Certain songs evoke nostalgia and memory, whether it is Perry Como, Buddy Guy, or Jefferson Airplane.

The problem with “new music” isn’t so much that it is worse or more dissonant, but that we don’t make the same associations. It doesn’t mean anything to us; it is the background of someone else’s youth. So, we tune it out and don’t really try to connect to it because it doesn’t seem to be connecting to us. That’s a very normal process, and is often called “taste freeze.”

Jim Fusilli, a music critic for The Wall Street Journal, argues that most people who have “taste freeze” are curious about today’s music, but don’t really have a way to get into it. It seems vast and often incomprehensible, and since we don’t have an immediate emotional connection, we don’t see an immediate opening. To that end, Fusilli has written a book about how to listen to music of the 21st-century called Catching Up, and has a website, “Re:New Music,” about introducing “grownups” to current trends and the best artists.

You don’t have to read a book or site to start exploring, though. There are a lot of different methods, whether you want to dip a toe or dive right in. Here are a few options:

  • Ask a younger friend or relative. This might be the best way since you are talking to someone who knows you, understands your tastes, and can ease you into the experience. If they know you are into social justice music, they might start you off with the incendiary passion of Kendrick Lamar, rather than the performance-art stylings of Kanye West.
  • Use music programs like Pandora. There are a lot of music programs that help people make connections. Pandora and Spotify are two free options. If you put in that you like Americana and folk music—Woody, Leadbelly, Seegar—it might steer you to those making the same sort of music today, like The Civil Wars.
  • Flip through the dial. This is the most random way to discover something new, but whether you are plucking out a song from the ether of terrestrial radio or finding a tune on the satellite, you might stumble across something new and beautiful. It’s throwing yourself to the mercy of fate, but in a way, that’s what all of life is.

Why Exploration Is a Lifelong Process

Of course, no one is saying that you have to like new music, or that there is something wrong if you don’t. Taste is all individual, and it isn’t wrong just to want to listen to what makes you happy. But you shouldn’t think that you can’t listen to new music, or, even worse, that you shouldn’t. There is a persistent idea that life is supposed to pass us by, and that as we age, exploration and self-discovery become a thing of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Knowing yourself and finding what makes you happy is a lifelong process, an endless journey. We accept that we are aging, but we don’t have to accept that it means stasis. Finding new music is like finding anything else, whether that is a hobby we wanted to explore or a strength we never knew we had. It is work, but it is worth it.

What does exploration mean to you? It could mean deciding to hike the Appalachian Trail, deciding to plant a new garden, starting a poker night with new friends, or finally finding out what’s the big deal about The White Stripes. But whatever it is, discovering new experiences is about not letting yourself be boxed in by external definition or arbitrary limitations.

At Institute on Aging, we work with aging adults and their families to ensure that you have the tools at your disposal to live where you want, how you want. Connect with us today to learn more about our work in the Bay Area, and how we can help you age in place.


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Institute on Aging

Committed to offering thoughtful discussions and resources to older adults, their families, and their caregivers.

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