Want to connect with trendy millennials? Try discussing older music, study finds

NEW YORK — On the whole, millennials are regarded as forward-thinking — but you wouldn’t know by looking at their playlists. New research reveals that millennials’ listening habits are quite diverse. So diverse that many 20-somethings are almost as familiar with oldies as with today’s top hits.

We learn this by way of a recent song recognition experiment at New York University, in which nearly 650 millennials took part. Participants, mostly 18 to 25, were shown seven short snippets of one-time Billboard No. 1 hits, released sometime between the 1940s and 2015. After each audio sample, participants were asked to identify the song played.

Senior author Pascal Wallisch and his research team then tallied each identified track by year of release, letting them pinpoint the present-day popularity of songs from earlier eras.

Overall, songs released in the 21st century — 2000 to 2015 — were the best identified, but tracks released from 1960 to 1999 didn’t lag far behind. In fact, all songs from this latter 40-year period enjoyed roughly the same degree of popularity.

The researchers attribute this finding to the sheer variety of hits released in the latter half of the 20th century. Billboard hits released in the 40s and 50s and the new millennium, conversely, tend to be more sonically similar, they explained.

“The 1960s to 1990s was a special time in music, reflected by a steady recognition of pieces of that era— even by today’s millennials,” says Wallisch, a clinical assistant professor at NYU’s Department of Psychology, in a university release.

Streaming services may level the playing field, Wallisch acknowledges, but the effect, if any, is negligible.

“Spotify was launched in 2008, well after nearly 90 percent of the songs we studied were released, which indicates millennials are aware of the music that, in general, preceded their lives and are nonetheless choosing to listen to it,” he adds.

It’s worth noting that these findings merely describe listening trends, to which there are many exceptions. That’s to say millennials may easily recognize one song from a given era but not another. Most participants, for instance, correctly identified “Baby Come Back” by Player (released in 1977), but didn’t recognize John Denver’s “I’m Sorry,” released two years earlier.

Predictably, ’40s and ’50s tracks were identified the least accurately, which points to a greater pattern: The older the track, the less likely it’d be correctly identified.

In all, Wallisch identified millennials as having three distinct eras of music “memory”: the 2000s, the 1960s-1990s, and the 1940s and 1950s.

The researchers published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE.