Our Music Preferences Reflect Our Personality

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Take a quiz that shows what your musical preferences say about you.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: messicanbeer/Flickr)

What kind of music do you like? And why do you like it?

If you’re like most people, your answer to the first question is probably a genre. But how much does such a label really tell us? Jazz, for example, encompasses a myriad of styles, from easy-going swing to aggressive avant-garde. Do you like them all equally?

The second question is even tougher. Sure, some of it has to do with familiarity — we tend to enjoy the music we grew up with — and perhaps a desire to fit in with one’s peers. But beyond that, who can say why an individual gravitates toward Beethoven, Basie, or Beyonce?

Well, a growing body of research argues that your musical likes and dislikes are directly related to your personality. A newly published study presents the strongest evidence yet for this connection — and it does so by disregarding genre distinctions.

“We are the music, and the music is us,” writes a research team led by University of Cambridge psychologist David M. Greenberg. It reports in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science that personality traits predict musical preferences better than such factors as age, education, and gender.

“We are the music, and the music is us.”

Greenberg and his colleagues, including McGill University’s Daniel Levitin, describe two studies. The first featured 76 participants “with no formal musical training” who judged 102 musical excerpts representing 26 genres and sub-genres. To avoid longstanding likes or dislikes, the pieces were all virtually unknown: About half were commercial flops, while the others were never even released.

Participants were given 36 evaluative terms (including sad, happy, angry, intelligent, and sophisticated), and judged the extent to which each excerpt fit the description. Analyzing the results, the researchers determined the musical snippets could be effectively categorized on three basic scales: “arousal,” “valence,” and “depth.”

High scores for “arousal” represent music that is intense, forceful, abrasive, and/or thrilling. High scores for “valence” reflect music that is fun, joyful, and enthusiastic; high scores for “depth” indicate music that is sophisticated, thoughtful, and poetic. Genre was irrelevant, although the classical excerpts, not surprisingly, tended to score high on the “depth” scale.

In the second study, 9,454 participants recruited online completed a personality inventory and evaluated 50 musical excerpts, none of which had received a commercial release. After analyzing their responses, the researchers concluded that “personality predicts musical preferences over and above demographic variables.”

For example, “preferences for low arousal (that is, soothing music) were associated with agreeableness and conscientiousness,” Greenberg and his colleagues write. “Preferences for negative valance (a.k.a. sad music) were associated with neuroticism,” while a love of upbeat, lively music “was positively associated with adventurousness, intellect, and liberalism.”

Personality played a particularly strong role in accounting for a preference for complex, sophisticated music. “The themes, symbolism, and lyrics expressed in music with emotional depth” are “closely and explicitly reflective of personality features,” the researchers write.

There’s more, but why not take the test for yourself? It’s accessible at www.musicaluniverse.org.

As the researchers note, these results have practical implications for programmers of streaming services, who might better serve their customers by creating playlists based on the aforementioned categories rather than rigid genre distinctions.

They will also be interesting to the many people researching the use of music in the healing process. Do certain types of music promote health better than others, or does it depend upon a patient’s preference? It’s a question worth exploring.

For now, however, the research suggests a club or concert hall may be a great place for potential mates to meet. If you love the same music, chances are you have similar, and presumably compatible, personalities.

So if you want to really get to know someone, consider quoting a classic tune from the great American songbook: “I like a Gershwin tune. How about you?”