Millennials are more likely to recognise pop songs made before they were born than modern alternatives.
Scientists tested a group of young adults on their ability to recognise hit records from different decades.
The 643 participants, typically aged 18 to 25, maintained a steady memory of top tunes that came out between 1960 and 1999.
It was when asked about songs from the 21st century that musical knowledge faded.
Examples of hits from yesteryear that younger adults are likely to recognise included Percy Sledge’s 1966 chart-topper When A Man Loves A Woman, and Blondie’s The Tide Is High from 1980.
Study senior author Dr Pascal Wallisch, at New York University, said: ‘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.’
Researchers were unable to identify what explained the stable level of recognition for songs from the 1960s through to the 1990s.
They noted that during that period there was a ‘significantly greater diversity’ of songs reaching the top of the charts compared to 2000 to 2015 and 1940 to 1950.
They said the large number of popular songs during the latter part of the 20th Century may explain why so many are still recognisable decades later.
The results, published in the journal PLOS One, underscore the popularity of certain songs from the 1960s through the end of the 20th Century.
Dr Wallisch added: ‘Spotify was launched in 2008, well after nearly 90 per cent 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.’
But Dr Wallisch and his colleagues emphasised that recognition of songs even from that period varies.
Some were extremely well known, such as When A Man Loves A Woman, 1977 hit Baby Come Back by Player, and The Tide Is High.
But others – such as ‘Knock Three Times’ by Dawn (1970), I’m Sorry by John Denver (1975), and Truly by Lionel Richie (1982) – are all but forgotten.
In selecting songs for the study, the researchers included those that reached the No. 1 spot on the Billboard ‘Top 100’ between the years 1940 and 1957 and No. 1 on the Billboard ‘Hot 100’ from 1958 to 2015.
The study’s participants included NYU students as well as others from the greater New York metropolitan area.
The sample was largely of young participants, with an average age of 21.3. The majority (88 per cent) were between the ages of 18 and 25.
Each participant was presented with a random selection of seven out of the 152 songs in the sample, asked to listen to the selection, and report whether they recognised it.
Participants were presented with five, 10 and 15-second excerpts deemed to be representative by a consensus panel of seven practising musicians and professors of music theory and composition.
The excerpts often contained a highly recognisable ‘lick’ – a unique and often repeated pattern of notes played by a single instrument – of each song.
In response to hearing each song, the participants were prompted to indicate whether they recognised it. The researchers then plotted the recognition proportion for each song as a function of the year during which it reached peak popularity.
The results revealed three distinct phases in collective memory, according to the researchers.
The first phase showed a steep linear drop-off in recognition for the music from this millennium, steadily declining, year by year, from 2015 to 2000; the second phase was marked by a stable plateau from the 1960s to the 1990s, with no notable decline during this 40-year period.
The third phase, similar to the first phase, was characterised by a more gradual drop-off during the 1940s and 1950s.