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Those Timeless Tunes of the 1940s, ’60s, and ’80s

New research suggests the top pop hits of those even-numbered decades haven’t lost their appeal.

By Tom Jacobs


Simon and Garfunkel performing in 1967. (Photo: Central Press/Getty Images)

When was the “golden age” of pop music? Opinions vary widely, in part because the tunes that made up the soundtrack of our adolescence tend to exert a primal pull.

But new research finds that, after setting this bias aside, younger Americans generally prefer songs that topped the charts during three decades: the 1940s, 1960s, and 1980s.

“Music of these decades produced the strongest emotional responses, and the most frequent and specific personal memories,” Cornell University psychologist Carol Lynne Krumhansl writes in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

That’s just one fascinating result from her latest study, which also finds younger listeners are different from older ones in ways that have nothing to do with changing technology.

Krumhansl’s study featured 1,910 people (57 percent of them Americans) born between 1928 and 2001. All listened to minute-long montages of top-selling songs spanning the past seven decades. The line-up included Glenn Miller’s In the Mood (the ’40s), Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water (the ’70s), and Faith Hill’s Breathe (the ’00s).

“After each clip, participants reported the percentage of songs they recognized, and how much they liked the songs,” Krumhansl writes. They also noted the extent to which the music led them to feel happy, sad, nostalgic, romantic, and energized, and reported whether the tunes evoked strong memories.

Overall, “Music of the 1940s was preferred to music of its neighboring decades, and the same was true for music of the 1960s,” she reports. “The music of the 1980s also showed a peak, but … only for the younger participants.”

“The music of the 1940s and the 1960s was judged to make the participants feel happier and more energized and nostalgic than the music of their neighboring decades,” she writes. “The same was true of music of the 1980s, although the effect of nostalgia was somewhat muted, possibly owing to its relative recency.”

One possible reason for this is the dramatic nature of those decades. The 1940s featured war-related songs that resonated emotionally, both for soldiers overseas and loved ones waiting at home. “The 1960s was a time of political unrest and tremendous artistic innovation, including that of the Beatles,” she notes. While calmer, the ’80s saw the exciting debut of the music video, and featured “influential albums by Michael Jackson, [Bruce] Springsteen, Prince, and others.”

She adds that each of those decades introduced important new music-listening technologies: the LP in the 1940s, the cassette in the 1960s, and the CD in the 1980s. Perhaps these innovations inspired more or closer listening to the hits of the day, burning them into our memories and inspiring us to share them with the next generation.

And on that subject, the study uncovered some unexpected generational differences regarding listening habits. For one, “younger participants tended to listen alone less than the older participants,” Krumhansl reports. “One might have thought, with the availability of personal listening devices, that they would be listening alone more.”

Also surprising: Those youngest participants were more likely to report music made them feel sad, no matter the decade in which it was created. And, contrary to the cliché that they are stuck in the past, the oldest participants — those born in the 1940s — had the most eclectic tastes of all, expressing a liking for music “from all periods of their lives, except the last two decades.”

Younger listeners, on the other hand, clearly preferred the hits of the ’40s, ’60s, and ’80s. So if you’re looking for a playlist that has multigenerational appeal, it’s clear which decades you should dip into. Perhaps this line-up might work: Hey, Jude, I’m In the Mood — so Call Me.