Guest Blog: All Musicians Peak in Their 20s

By Marc McMaster


I’ve been thinking about something for awhile. The subject line states the obvious – It’s pretty common knowledge that nearly all notable musicians embark on their success in their 20’s.
But why is that? Is it because humans tend to have their creative peak during this period? I am not sure if that is the case, as other creative arts had notable people arise in their 30’s to even 70’s. Eg acting, painting, sculpture. 
I once thought it was related to the music industry and our current time period (ie, young people “sell”). I’m no longer convinced of this however, because Beethoven was pretty young during his rise to fame. Contrast this with non-musical artists like some painters who die penniless and only gain fame posthumously.
Furthermore, what is especially interesting is that well established bands never surpass their heydays. U2 are still putting out records, but there will never be another Joshua Tree (seriously, can you remember more than three songs from Atomic Bomb?… wait, maybe you can). Paul McCartney will
never co-write another Rubber Soul. Pearl Jam won’t make another Versus. The list is endless. This is the polar opposite of every other profession, wherein experience just makes you better and better.
I have watched documentaries on the human brain and its development continues up to age 25. I wonder if anyone has looked into “creative peaking” in music during one’s early twenties to see if there is some sort of correlation or enhancement during this time. My Google searches have revealed a number of discussions on creativity peaking, but those that were musically focussed tended to be general banter by music fans and not really “academic” analyses. 
I’m not entirely sure how one would study this scientifically, considering how music is subjective, unless you solely peg success to sales. 
Another possible explanation is that successful bands and artists get rich and lazy.  They have made their millions and the fire in the belly is gone. Either that or the money lets them diverge into more eccentric musical pathways and risk taking (see Radiohead). 
Try naming more than three notable bands that made their big break after the age of thirty. The task is almost impossible.
[Guest opinions are always welcome.  Lemme know if you have something to say by clicking on the Talk to Me link in the left-hand column. – AC]


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37437 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

7 thoughts on “Guest Blog: All Musicians Peak in Their 20s

  • Sorry to disagree, I’d recommend reading Malcom Glawell’s Outliers. People develop at different rates – but need to get to the magical 10,000 hours. Wes Montgomery did not start playing guitar till he was 20 years old. Beethoven improved dramatically with age: Symphony #9 is amongst his most adored. My favorite, 4th Piano Concerto was written when Beethoven was 35. Harry Chapin did not start working as a musician/songwriter until he was 31.
    My belief it is rare for musicians to come on the scene after 30 is because everyone has to make a living, it is rare that a person can put in their dues (10,000 hours) after their middle 20s.
    Some musicians get better or worse with age. However, audiences always want to hear great work from the past repeated. After a while that can drain a musician’s creativity. At times audiences react very negatively when an artist grows in a different direction also inhibiting creative growth. As we move away from a proven success A&R approach there will be more opportunities for performing artists to expand what if audiences are open minded to change.

  • Your bit about creative peaking in music is something that has always intrigued me as well. I have been wondering how great artists like Stevie Wonder or The Beatles or early David Bowie, can write such great songs and albums in such a short period of time and then fall off. David Bowie is something different ( although one must admit he will never write an album a year (or more) like he did from 69-77 – most importantly for me the 69-72 period)
    Stevie Wonder wrote 6 great albums in a mere 4 years from 70-74, and he will never touch that again.
    I am starting to believe that at some point the artist or musician loses touch with the world. Maybe when you are younger you are connected to the pulse and your interests are more relevant to the world around you.
    Paul McCartney is a great example of how the craziness of Beatle mania kept them in a bubble
    and at some point he had no idea how the world even worked anymore (I just read a biography on Sir Paul and after the breakup he really had no clue how to carry on or relate to the world)

    one more thing from Hi-Fidelity

    Rob, top five musical crimes perpetuated by Stevie Wonder in the '80s and '90s. Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter day sins, is it better to burn out or fade away?


  • Thanks for he responses. Rich: thanks for the counterpoint and reminder about outliers – it has been while since I read that book and the logic is sound. Most musicians have put in their 10k hours by the time they reach 30, so one could say that if they were any good (and had opportunity!), they would have broke into the musical scene by then. I agree with your other examples- I realise there are always exceptions, but I think my basic observation is pretty valid.

    I don't really like speaking in absolutes, so in hindsight I should have titled post a little differently.

    Also Mike: thanks for reminding me to rewatch Hi fidelity.


  • Damn, I had this written this morning but didn't get a chance to submit. I disagree to a certain extent.

    I've often thought this same thing; if you look at many of arguably the biggest artists in history their greatest output was in their 20's, hell the Beatles were barely 21 when they got on Ed Sullivan and they were nearly at their peak, and really the band only existed during their 20's. And of course there is the whole '27 club' where they had already hit their high mark before checking out early.

    But there are definitely notable exceptions. In fact, it's funny this came up as I was just looking into how old the members of Tool were when they realeased Opiate in 1992, since it is now up for reissue, 21 years on. All of them but their bassist, who is the youngest by far, were over 30. (Yes, their bassist back then, who is actually a few years older than their current bassist). That was their first album and they have done nothing but get better with each one. I've found a lot of music that has become more intricate, and even refined, is made by older artists – which makes sense to me. Eg. I don't really like Radiohead prior to OK Computer. What exactly is wrong with their later output? It's some of the best music I've ever heard. Their early stuff was raw and simplistic, which may or may not be good depending on your outlook, but – surprise, surprise, that is exactly what young artists tend to put out. They seem to burn bright and quick, like a massive star would (literally).

    I think this boils down to a bit of a generalization as sure you can name plenty of huge acts who seem to peak in their youth, but if you really looked you could likely find plenty that have just kept improving with age.

  • This is definitely a fascinating conversation. Alan, I agree with you in many of your statements about the 20s being the creative peak. There are only a handful of musicians that fall into the category of fame over 30.
    Yes, the Malcolm Gladwell topic on the 'Tipping Point' discussing 10,000 hours to become a professional is relevant to this discussion and to many other industries. Yet I think the most important factor is the ability to take risks. It is hard after the age of 30 to take risks like one did when they are young due to financial burdens, starting families, and a whole bunch of other reasons pertaining to 'growing up' .Those that take risks when they are young (especially pertaining with music) can find the success they look for.
    Lets take another example of art, like a Film Director. The reason why this is different and similar is because this certain person took a risk when they were young by going into film. Maybe starting off at the bottom of a chain and slowly learning more and gaining more experience to soon be able to direct a great film (late 20's to even 80s years of age).
    The risk is the essential part in becoming successful in the arts. Yet it just so happens that music is a profession where success can be reached much earlier than other art professions in now a day's modern art culture.
    Although image and being young does play a huge factor in music, as it always has. The attractiveness in a person translates through the music. From a guesstimation (not experience) I would say that for the majority of people attractiveness in character and physicality is lost with age, thus loosing an audience, and ones inner drive.
    Risk is all with art. When you are willing to take it is what determines ones path.

  • I think context is missing from this discussion. When an artist establishes themselves, they are then forever measured against their 'groundbreakers', and they will never be measured again by the sameccriteria. No one can be incredible every time, an inevitably there will be ups and downs, but rhe downs will win because of the precedents.

  • Yup, always a fascinating discussion. If you listen to musicians like Ian Anderson and Peter Frampton, arguably artists that most might say have 'aged gracefully' (I. E. you can still respect them now, but there's no "Frampton Comes Alive @ Sixty Five!" hitting the charts), they may or may not have a good relationship with their older music, but they feel as they age it's intellectually boring to just put out music which might be popular but is simpler. When playing Rocksmith along with Santana tracks from his early days and a more recent one, damn the new stuff is hard – not just the licks, but the musical transformations. Black Magic Woman just sort of falls under your fingers – great fun but much simpler. I think the Dark Side of the Moon's and Joshua Trees of history require a sense of discovery both on the part of the artist and the fans. Just like there's only one first Star Wars, soon the artist's sense of discovery has to climb into more esoteric altitudes, almost by definition outside of anything that could be a 'popular work'. As with everything, there are exceptions like Bowie, who has always been famous for reinvention. I'm not trying to be snobby about it, but I think 'great works of rock' are 'popular', I. E. pop. That doesn't diminish them in the slightest, it's just a reality.


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