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NYU Study Examines How We Remember Popular Music Over Time

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A new study funded by New York University has set out to determine how far back our collective music memory can go. The study, titled Who remembers the Beatles? The collective memory for popular music, was conducted by a team of researchers that included Stephen Spivack, Sara Jordan Philibotte, Nathaniel Hugo Spilka, Ian Joseph Passman and Pascal Wallisch.

The researchers hypothesized that there might exist a “cultural horizon” after which popular music is effectively forgotten by the public. To test this, they decided to ask a group of 643 mostly millennial participants from the New York area if they recognize a selection of songs that topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart at some point between the year 1940 and today. The list of songs included everything from Michael Jackson and The Beatles to Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus. They then compared the percentage of people who recognized each song to the year the song reached peak popularity.

Graphic courtesy of Spivack et al.

Their results showed that our collective memory does not decline in a linear or even exponential fashion, and that there is not one single threshold beyond which music is forgotten. Instead, the researchers found that our collective memory of music over time can be charted in three different phases. The first phase covers music that was popular very recently, between 2001 and 2015, the second phase is between 1960 and 2000, and the third phase is from 1940 to 1959. The data showed that recognition was high in the first phase, but it decreased in a steep line from 2015 back to the turn of the millennium. In the second phase, however, recognition hit a long plateau from the late ‘90s to the early ‘60s with an average recognition percentage of 37 percent. By the third phase, starting in the late 1950s, recognition was quite low and slowly decreased until it was negligible or nonexistent.

This data suggests that the bulk of the public’s memory of a song goes away in the first 15 or 20 years after the song is popular, but that we actually remember songs at respectable levels for many decades after that initial decline. The researchers theorized that the plateau in phase two is the result of participants hearing their parents’ music in the house growing up. They concluded that while there was no single “cultural horizon” for collective memory, we remember music much differently from other historical phenomenon, possibly due to our ability to decide the music we listen to. With any luck, these findings suggest that we won’t really begin to forget today’s hits until around the 2070s, so “thank u, next” is here to stay.

See Spivack and company’s full study here.

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