Recognizing decades by pop music

A lot of recent TV shows and movies portray earlier decades in flashbacks or as a result of time travel. An easy trick (besides imagery, which is a distinct topic) to show the viewer where (when) we are is by using a song from that period. Some songs are iconic for their period, such as A Whiter Shade of Pale. Others I may not know, but can recognize as belonging to the 70s, 80s. However, I realise that I can’t really distinguish between 00s and 10s, and even may not place 90s songs correctly. 50s-60s are lumped together in my mind. For certain genres (rap, hip-hop) I have no clue at all.

I believe I’m not an outlier, but there are probably also differences between individuals and generations. For instance, I’m not convinced that current teenagers clearly differentiate between 80s and 90s (or even 70s and 80s). Note, this is not about specifically knowing the song, but rather recognizing the style from the time period that it belongs to.

So how is it with others? Can you place recent songs according to decade? Do you distinguish 50s and 60s?

A few thoughts (at least for me)

Movies making use of music to set the era are usually using well known songs or songs in styles deeply associated with the era. But there’s a lot songs from 1992 you might think were from the late 80s or songs from 1982 you might think were from the late 70s, etc. Plenty of styles overlapped decade lines.

With that in mind, I think I could have a fighting chance telling songs from the 50s vs 60s, if we’re talking mid-decade in each. But a lot of stuff from the early 60s, pre-British Invasion, could easily be mistaken as 50s to a casual listener.

As decades have progressed more genres pop up which spreads the musical terrain even more. Plus, each generation is going to take influences from previous generations. Since the 70s, you have four more decades of music making use of disco or funk stylings, for instance. Plus my brain is older and filled with decades of music and my tastes were already established so, while I was still finding new music in the 2000s and 2010s, it wasn’t necessarily the popular music of that era. I could name off big artists of the last 20 years but I couldn’t reliably place them on a timeline or identify their songs. But that says more about me than it does about them. I don’t think I’m the right guy to ask if you can identify music by decade from the 1990s onward – should probably ask someone 20 years younger than me who actually bought Justin Beiber, Brittney Spears and Evanescence albums.

Perhaps, but (for example) I suspect if you heard a song with heavy Auto-Tune™, you wouldn’t think it was written in the past few years. At least, I wouldn’t and I’m definitely not someone who listens to a lot of recent pop music.

I’m not sure this is completely true. I’ve noticed that kids from the younger generation, children of friends and relatives around my age, and younger folks I’ve worked with, seem to be much more knowledgeable of popular music from decades before them than I was at the same age.

When I first really got into music in my teens (the 70s) the earliest music I listened to was British invasion stuff from a decade before. A lot of youngsters in their teens and 20s these days are big Beatles, Stones and Zep fans. That’s the equivalent of me being really into the Glenn Miller Band in my teens / 20s.

The OP presumes that the music is intended to signal a particular decade. Maybe it’s only to signal a particular era or generation.

I agree with you that younger generations listen to more older music than past generations - but that’s not the same thing as being able to place a song by decade. I have nephews in their 20s and a 31 year old son, all of whom listen to music from the groups you mentioned and more and you’re right, it’s really sort of the same as me listing to Glenn Miller. But listening to older music and identifying the decade it comes from are two different things - my nephews might listen to the Stones but that doesn’t mean they can identify “Jumping Jack Flash” as being from 1968 and “Shattered” from 1978 and “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” being from 1989. I’m a lot older than the nephews and son, and before looking it up, the only one I could have placed within a couple of years was “Shattered” - I knew "Jumping Jack Flash was released before 1977 but I had no idea whether it was 1965 or 1975. Same for “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” - I could have told you it was after 1986 but nothing more specific.

It does get tricky with artists and groups whose career spanned many decades. I’m a big fan of Leonard Cohen, and it’s easy enough to recognize a song of his as being from his young days (the 60s and 70s), his middle aged days (80s and 90s) or his old age days (00s and 10s). Picking out a specific decade within those periods is more difficult, and even if someone can do it, it’s based on knowledge of the albums in question, not different styles (meaning that Cohen’s 60s music isn’t different from his 70s music, his 80s and 90s music are of the same style, as are his 00s and 10s music).*

  • With the exception of his Death of a Ladies’ Man album, which doesn’t fit well with any of those three periods of his works.

Throwback scenes can be an interesting challenge. There’s an episode of House where House and Cuddy are dancing to Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time. Something like that might be more of a challenge for today’s teenagers to pick out than a movie from the 80s like Goonies (to stay on the Lauper theme :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:).

Although House itself might seem dated to today’s teenagers. I’m a middle aged guy and It’s hard for me to tell what seems dated to today’s teenagers.

There are certain unique signatures in music that can place it in a likely decade, or at least tell you how early it could possibly be.

For example, a signature 80’s sound comes from drum machines. In particular the Roland TR-808.

Also, the Yamaha DX7 sunthesizer was huge in pop music in the 80’s - The opening to ah-ha’s 'Take on Me ’ is an example.

The Moog synthesizer was around in the 60’s, but the early ones were expensive, large, and probably finicky. The Mini-Moog was much smaller and cheaper, and it came out in 1969 and kicked off the synth trend. If you heard a synthesizer in a song, it’s almost certainly no older than the late 60’s and probably the 70’s. The first synths date back to the 50’s, but didn’t really impact pop music. Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’ in 1961 might be the first pop song to use a synth. The Monkees were the first to use a Moog in the late 60’s.

Classic Roland TR-808 sound here:

Famous songs using the DX-7:

Sounds of the Mini-Moog:

That synth (and its later siblings) was used in a lot of prog rock songs like Kraftwerk and Rush. Rush’s ‘Closer to the Heart’ is an example.

These synths are all still occasionally in use, so the best you can do is set the boundary for how early the song could possibly be.

Also ordinary drums with gated reverb.

The/an advertisement/promo for Switched on Pop uses drum hits from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and “current” to illustrate how different the sound changed through time and eras.

It think it’s tricky to pick out songs from early eras where something like big band and jazz, or a singer like Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra had a fairly consistent style and sound for many years or decades. You’d have to be familiar with that period/artist/era to have a good chance to get the year right.

The 50s through the 90s roughly had smaller but still multi-year long “sounds” that makes them easier to narrow down, but any year can have outliers and one of a kind sounds that sound like a much later or earlier era of music.