A meditation on the science of musical taste

By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Reader Contributor

I recently revisited what can only be described as a cinematic and musical masterpiece of the 21st century: the 2003 film School of Rock, starring Jack Black and a cast of talented children who I can only hope went on to lead fulfilling lives after taking part in a project impossible to top in their subsequent careers.

If you don’t believe me, ask Rotten Tomatoes, where SOR boasts a 92% critic rating.

The film tells the story of washed-up, unemployed rockstar Dewey Finn, who needs to come up with his half of the rent before his pushover best friend’s nagging girlfriend finally kicks him to the curb. A clandestine phone call leads to Dewey impersonating his best friend as a substitute teacher at a well-to-do private elementary school, where he quickly discovers his students have musical talent. He hatches a plan to redeem himself at the local Battle of the Bands competition, ultimately unlocking the most punk truth of all: With the right attitude and some teamwork, everyone can rock.

I saw School of Rock shortly after its release, sometime around my eighth birthday. Already an avid music consumer thanks to my older sister, Jack Black’s goofy persona and the classic-rock-drenched soundtrack (think Led Zeppelin and Stevie Nicks) unlocked something in me. 

During our recent rewatch, I joked to my husband, “I based my entire personality in elementary school off this movie.” Except it wasn’t a joke. I asked for a guitar for Christmas. When guitar lessons tapered off, I learned to play the drumset. I had fishnet, fingerless gloves. Seeing School of Rock, attending my first concert at age 9 (Avril Lavigne), and the influence of my dad’s Lynyrd Skynyrd collection proved to be a perfect storm. To this day, there is a little piece of me that never stopped being a rockstar girl living in a small town world.

It all got me thinking: How do we develop our taste in music? Does something that feels so deeply personal actually just come from the media and environments we’re exposed to as children?

According to science, the answer is yes — and no.

It is true that part of our musical taste is drawn from what we’re raised on. Musicologist and author Nolan Gasser makes the argument that because babies are born with the capability to make any sound from any language on the planet, that capability is slowly whittled down over the first few months of life depending upon what sounds — language, music, etc. — to which they are exposed. This creates a natural affinity for what is familiar, and explains why I still find comfort in popular country songs from the ’80s and ’90s (thanks, Mom).

Over time, however, music becomes a distinct identity marker, and a convenient outlet for the natural desire to differentiate oneself from the powers that be (sorry, Mom).

This desire peaks around the same time that hormones are primed for the acquisition of new identity markers: age 14, according to experts at McGill University. While we were all walking around like raw nerves in puberty, our brains were best equipped to find and love new expressions of self — new music, in particular. 

Think about the music you found and loved in your early-to-mid-teens. Odds are that this is still some of the music you love most today.

This is certainly true for me. It was around age 14 that I discovered what my friends and family fondly refer to as my “sad white girl” music (think early Bon Iver and the like). This was also around the time that I started getting seriously involved in sports, and jock rap — think Drake and Lil Wayne — was at its peak. As a result, my listening habits see a constant rotation of 2010s indie folk and hip-hop playlists. 

The little rockstar inside me may not be proud of this fact, but there’s no denying that pubescent musical imprinting. And besides, isn’t the great life lesson of School of Rock to own who you are and stick it to The Man? I think I’ll take a note from the Dewey Finn playbook and own my convoluted music taste.

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