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Different generations and taste of music

The controversy surrounding the recent National Arts Merit Awards (Nama) in the music category prompted me to conduct some research into the different generations’ musical tastes.

By Fred Zindi

The Nama ceremony, which was held last month at Reps Theatre, was represented by all generations from teenagers to the over 70s. While most young people thought that the gong of best song should have gone to Soul Jah Love for the song Pamamonya Ipapo, the over-50s had never even heard of the song and they felt that Jah Prayzah deserved the award with his song Ndin’ Ndamubata. Up to now, the debate rages on. Was the adjudication based on the popularity of the persons involved or on the songs these two entered for the awards? Straight away, this suggests that the adjudication process at Nama requires judges with experience from all generations and all musical styles. If one adjudicator is chosen from the Zimdancehall genre, another from the sungura genre, another from hip-hop and yet another from the Afro-jazz genre, and their differences in age are also taken into account, this might mitigate the debate on whom to choose as a winner. More so, if a more mature and experienced musical expert makes the final decision, there would certainly be less controversy.

My survey revealed that Soul Jah Love appeals more to the ghetto youths while Jah Prayzah’s music is for the more mature.

In my survey, I also asked the following questions:

l“Do you and your siblings, cousins or friends who are a few years younger or older than you love the same songs?”

l“What about your parents or other adults: do you share the same favourite musical artistes?”

l “What was your favorite song when you were 13 or 14? Do you think you’ll always love it?”

l“Why do you think the early teen years are so significant for forging a lifelong taste in music?”

My questions were based on material I had read before which showed that most of the music we love today is based on the songs which impressed us as teenagers.

Studies conducted by musicologists in the past have found that the “strongest adult musical preferences” set in by age 13 for girls and 14 for boys. If you ask men and women who are over 60 today what music they preferred during their teenage days in Rhodesia when we were all subjected to Western music, you will get answers such as The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix or Crosby, Stills, Nash and young from the men and Dolly Parton, Cliff Richard, Diana Ross, Jim Reeves and Pat Boone from the women.
It is true that the year we were born influences the music we listen to and the extent to which different generations are bound to disagree on music.

Consider, for example, the song Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix. This was one of the most popular songs among men in Rhodesia in the 1970s. But it is not in the top 300 for the cohort of men born in the 1980s or after. Every musician who learnt to play the guitar in the late 1960s and early 1970s started his guitar lessons with this song, which was played in key E.

Note that the men who most liked Hey Joe were in their teens when the song came out in 1965. In fact, this is a consistent pattern. The songs that make an impression on someone are usually captured around the teenage period.

I did a similar analysis with every song that topped the Billboard charts from 1960 to 2000. In particular, I measured how old their biggest fans today were when these songs first came out.

It turns out that the situation is pretty much universal. Songs that came out decades earlier are now, on average, most popular among men who were 14 when they were first released. The most important period for men in forming their adult tastes were the ages 13 to 16. As Joseph Mhandu, now aged 42, confessed: “The song I liked the most when I was 14 was Nhamo Dzandimomotera by Oliver Mtukudzi. I was still at school in Form 2 and I was experiencing a lot of hardships then. My father had just passed away and my mother was sick. We had no income whatsoever. The part which says Ini Handidi Nhamo resonated well with the decline in my well-being. I still love that song today.”
What about women? On average, their favourite songs came out when they were 13. The women in their 40s and 50s today loved songs from the likes of Dolly Parton, Luther Vandross, Barry White, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Percy Sledge. Most of them still have those Country and Western and R‘n’B tastes up to today.

Granted, some results of my research are not surprising, one of the facts I discovered is that although the hip-hop genre was quite popular in the 1980s especially among black youths in the ghettos of America, it never made an impression on the women in Zimbabwe. For instance, Coolio’s Gangsters Paradise which made a big hit in the American charts of the 1980s, is extremely unpopular among women in their 70s. I have a feeling it was the lyrics which the women detested. Do we want research to uncover that nugget of wisdom? No.

But I did find it interesting how clear the patterns were and how much early adolescence matters. The key years in which music makes an impression on us, in fact, match closely with the end of puberty, where every boy and girl would be found with a song book with words to their favourite artistes’ songs.. For both men and women, their early 20s were half as influential in determining adult musical tastes as their early teens.

If you don’t believe me, ask your parents or teachers about their favourite bands, musicians, songs and albums when they were in their early teens and how they feel about them today. How does what they shared with you support or challenge the notion that one’s lifelong musical taste is cemented in the early teen years?

What, if any, do you think are the challenges older people face when they hear styles of music that either didn’t exist or weren’t known to them when they were teenagers? In my humble opinion, older people tend to resent the music styles they are not familiar with. For example, Zimdancehall is new on the scene and an old Nama adjudicator is not likely to appreciate it when compared to some youthful adjudicator from the ghetto. Nama should take this into account.

In addition, Nama should consider as adjudicators musicians with a classical music background. I find these to be all-rounders when it comes to assessing real music sound quality. They can identify the off-notes and timbre in a song.

But what is classical music?

It is music composed between 1750 and 1810. Important features of classical music are grace and beauty of line (melody), perfection of form and design. It is said that classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and others who lived during this period, aimed at striking the ideal balance between expressiveness and formal structure. A classical composer used a richer variety of contrasting tunes, rhythms, keys and frequent changes of timbres, but also making use of dynamics such as crescendo, diminuendo and sforzando (for instance, with sudden emphasis). The texture of classical music is often homophonic melody supported by chordal accompaniment. Given this, Nama should be in a position to identify talent for what it really is.

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