This is the age when you find the music that defines you

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If you were about to be cast away on a desert island all by yourself, which eight musical records would you bring along to help pass the time? That’s the premise of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, Britain’s longest-running radio program ever. First airing in January of 1942, Desert Island Discs is an institution of UK radio. Besides all that, though, the legendary radio program also provided the basis for a fascinating new study on musical tastes and identity.

Researchers from both the University of Westminster and City University of London analyzed the record choices made by various Desert Island Discs guests and concluded that the music one listens to and enjoys between the ages of 10 and 30 usually defines that individual for the rest of their lives.

Referred to by the study’s authors as a “self-defining period,” the 20-year gap between 10 and 30 years old is an important time in anyone’s life. It’s when we first establish independence from our families, carve out a unique identity for ourselves, and form musical tastes.

Within the context of the desert island scenario, researchers discovered that when faced with isolation people usually turn to music that reminds them of the past. Moreover, people often choose old songs or albums that remind them of a specific person from their past (so as not to feel alone on the desert island) or music that brings them back to a big moment/event in their lives (to empower oneself).

In total, responses from 80 Desert Island Discs guests were analyzed for this research. Originally, the study’s authors set out to investigate how people choose the music most important to them, and whether a specific time in peoples’ lives kept coming up as a source of strong musical tastes.

The research team’s analysis produced several interesting findings. To start, roughly half of all musical choices a person makes between the ages of 10 and 30 end up being relevant to one’s identity.

This isn’t the first time that it’s been observed that people tend to gravitate back to the music of their youth. But, while prior projects have chalked this up to nothing more than nostalgia, this study’s authors say that the music we listen to as teenagers and young adults form lasting, strong memories connected to one’s overall sense of self. So, there’s a lot more at play than just nostalgia.

Additionally, listening to music during adolescence is so common it’s been a stereotype for decades. The moody, introverted teenager who does nothing all day except listen to records has been portrayed in countless works of fiction. It’s no coincidence that adolescents begin to form a true identity during their teenage years as well. Music is a big part of that process.

“Guests frequently chose songs because they were related to important memories that occurred during teenage years. This extends previous findings by showing that music from this time has a particular meaning, primarily because it relates to memories from this very important developmental period of our life,” explains lead researcher Catherine Loveday, Professor and Neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster, in a release. “Unlike previous studies, this study shows that this occurs even in a completely naturalistic setting, where people are not constrained by experimental settings and have completely free rein on their musical choices.”

When study participants were asked specifically why they chose a certain song for their stay on a deserted island, the most frequent reason given (17%) was because that song reminded them of a person (partner, parent, friend) from their past. The second most popular answer (16.2%) to that question was that the song reminded them of a certain time in their life (either a general period like childhood or a more specific occasion like “remembering playing this at home over and over again”).

Finally, the third most popular reason for choosing a song was that tune’s personal connection to a big life-changing moment or decision (12.9%). For example, when Bruce Springsteen appeared on Desert Island Discs he picked the Beatles song “I want to hold your hand” because it had originally inspired him to start making music and playing guitar as an adolescent.

“Because the premise of the program is that people imagine themselves in isolation, this research has relevance to anyone who becomes isolated, including during lockdown measures in the current coronavirus pandemic, or who becomes displaced from their everyday environments, such as residents in care homes, refugees or hospital patients,” Professor Loveday concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.