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You May Be a Musician and Not Even Know It

New research finds a link between personality and musical ability.
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Lady Gaga performing in Milan in 2010. (Photo: Matteo Chinellato/Shutterstock)

Lady Gaga performing in Milan in 2010. (Photo: Matteo Chinellato/Shutterstock)

Thinking about taking up a musical instrument, but not sure if you have the ability to do so? Here's a quick way to get a good idea of whether you're likely to embarrass yourself: Take a standard personality quiz.

Newly published research finds that people who score high on the "openness to experience" scale, specifically its "openness to aesthetics" subset, don't only have sophisticated musical tasteswhether they know it or not, they also are more likely to have musical talent.

"These results are particularly important for teachers and educators, who can use information about their student's personality to see who might be most successful in varied musical activities," writes University of Cambridge psychologist David M. Greenberg, the paper's lead author.

The best predictor of musical ability—both self-assessed and as determined by the aforementioned tests—was the participant's personality.

The study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, featured 7,870 people who participated in a larger research project hosted and sponsored by the BBC. Sixty-two percent were women; the mean age of participants was just under 32. Participants provided detailed demographic information, including whether they played a musical instrument (22 percent said yes).

Their personalities were measured by using the standard Big Five Inventory, in which participants read statements beginning with the words "I see myself as someone who...." They reacted to each using a five-point scale ("disagree strongly" to "agree strongly"). Their responses indicated the degree to which they embody the basic personality traits: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.

Among the "openness to experience" markers were three that focused specifically on aesthetics: "I see myself as someone who (a) values artistic, aesthetic experiences; (b) has few artistic interests; (c) is sophisticated in art, music, or literature." High scores on the first and third, and low scores on the second, indicate someone is open to aesthetic adventures.

Participants then assessed their musical expertise, and took two tests to measure their actual abilities in this field. In the first, they listened to a series of unfamiliar 10- to 17-note melodies, which were subsequently repeated in a different key. For each, they were asked to indicate whether the two melodies "were the same." (Half of them were; the others were altered slightly.)

For the second test, brief excerpts of instrumental music were overlaid with a metronomic beep. Participants indicated whether the beep was on or off the beat.

The key result: Other than musical experience, the best predictor of musical ability—both self-assessed and as determined by the aforementioned tests—was the participant's personality. Specifically, high scores on the "openness to aesthetics" scale were associated with high marks on the musical ability tests—even if the person was not a musician.

This raises the possibility that "there are people out there who may be primed to be musical, but who have never played an instrument," notes co-author Daniel Müllensiefen.

The results should be helpful to parents wondering whether to push their son or daughter to take music lessons, as well as retirees pondering whether to take up an instrument to keep their minds sharp in old age. If you value aesthetic experiences, and appreciate the arts in a reasonably sophisticated way, it's definitely worth a shot.

In this arena, at least, it seems our abilities often align with our interests.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.