Brain and Body

The Way You Think Shapes Your Musical Taste

September 3, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Fans at a rock concert, black and white
Photo credit: Bertrand/Flickr/

Psychologists at the University of Cambridge have revealed how individual cognitive styles impact on the type of music that moves us.

Most people can decide within seconds whether or not they’re drawn into a song, but little is known about what actually determines our taste in music. Through a recent psychology study, researchers at the University of Cambridge determined that your musical tastes might say a lot about the way you think.

Studies over the past decade have found correlations between musical taste and the Big Five personality traits: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness. People who are more extroverted and agreeable tend to enjoy music from pop, funk, electronic, and dance genres. People who are open to new experiences seem to prefer blues, jazz, classical and folk. Age can also have an effect on musical preference.

While personality traits and age can be argued as more straightforward factors in determining musical preference, the team of psychologists at Cambridge have now researched how cognition influences our musical choices. Led by PhD student David Greenberg, the team measured “cognitive style” by determining whether an individual scored higher on “empathy” (our ability to recognize and react to the thoughts and feelings of others) or “systemizing” (our interest in understanding the rules and structures of systems like the weather, music, car engines, etc.) — or whether the individual has a balance of both.

Greenberg’s study unearthed how cognitive style can be a better predictor of what kind of music people like than their personalities. Although musical choices fluctuate over time, empathy levels and thinking style serve as probable predictors.

The study included over 4,000 participants who completed a series of studies—first, psychology-based questionnaires and then, music-rating samples. To minimize the chance that participants would have personal or cultural connections to the music choices, researchers included library examples of musical stimuli from 26 genres and subgenres.

People who scored high on empathy tended to prefer mellow music, like soft rock and R&B, and contemporary music, from electronica to Euro pop. They disliked intense music like punk and heavy metal. People who scored high on systemizing were the opposite; they disliked mellow music and favored intense music. These results stayed consistent even in specific genres— empathizers preferred mellow jazz while systematizers preferred intense, complex jazz.

The results of the study had deeper implications too. Empathizers favored music that had gentle, reflective, and sensual elements, as well as sad characteristics and negative emotions. They also preferred music with emotional depth, expressing poetic, relaxing, and thoughtful features. On the other hand, systematizers preferred music that had high energy and thrilling elements as well as positive emotions and fun characteristics.

These findings could have value for music services like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music. In order to determine what music a customer might want to listen to, a lot of money is spent on developing algorithms. Greenberg’s extension of the psychological “empathizing-systemizing” theory into musical preference could allow music services to fine-tune their recommendations in the future. If they knew a user was an empathizer, they could ensure that the songs in each genre would be the more mellow and emotionally-deep choices.

The senior author of the study, Dr. Jason Rentfrow, voices, “This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self. Music is an expression of who we are emotionally, socially, and cognitively.”

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