Are Musical Genres Outdated?

New research proposes a re-classification and links personality to preference

Posted May 27, 2016

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Source: Image courtesy of

As a musician, one of the hardest questions for me to answer is “what kind of music do you like?” My current rote answer is “Well, it depends on my mood. Sometimes I like…” and then I continue on by listing several examples of different musical genres and the mood I associate them with.

Here’s another observation…in conversations with my husband (also a musician) we note how he prefers largely instrumental music without lyrics (think: Earth, Wind, and Fire), whereas I love music I can sing to and music with a strong rhythmic foundation (as I love to move to music).

New research from a team of scientists (University of Cambridge, Stanford, McGill, Rutgers, and City University of New York) may help me understand these observations better. Led by Dr. David Greenberg, these researchers sought to explore the connection between personality and musical preference.

The research team started by debunking the idea that music can only be categorized by genre or style. Noting that genre is a “broad (classification) with illusive definitions and social connotations” (in other words, genres are difficult to define and socially constructed), they first sought to classify music in a different way. The researchers asked a group of non-musicians to rate musical excerpts by perceived psychological attributes (e.g. intense, forceful, fun, sad, mellow, etc.). From this emerged two principal components the researchers proposed can be used to classify music: arousal and valence, the latter which can be sub-categorized as depth and valence. Arousal refers to the perceived energy and intensity in the music, valence to the perceived emotional quality of the music, and depth to the intellectual sophistication of the music.

Next, the research team solicited volunteers from Facebook (nearly 10,000!) to complete two tasks: fill out a personality quiz and rate their reactions to a subset of musical excerpts used in the first study. The aim of this stage was to make connections between personality and preference. Results indicated that certain demographic characteristics are linked to musical preference (e.g. preference for depth was positively associated with age and education). Personality, too, made a difference in the following ways:

  • Neuroticism was positively correlated with arousal and negatively correlated with valence;
  • Extraversion was negatively correlated with arousal;
  • Openness was positively correlated with valence and depth;
  • Agreeableness was negatively correlated with arousal, positively correlated with valence and depth;
  • Conscientiousness was negatively correlated with arousal and positively correlated with depth.

What does this mean, then? The short answer is that we do not need to be restricted to the constructs of genre and style when describing our musical preference. Although prior research has explored the intersection between personality and musical preference, what makes this particular study unique is that it did not rely on socially-constructed definitions of genre. Rather, it characterized music through an emergent analysis, from which the categories of energy level (arousal), emotional meaning (valence), and complexity (depth) unfolded. This new categorization transcends styles and genres—characterizations that are socially and culturally constructed—and provides a more explicit portrayal of musical qualities.

A few concluding observations from the music therapy researcher in me…It should be noted that this research does not take into account current mood. I know that my preferred music on any particular day is driven in large part by the mood I’m currently feeling or want to feel…and I know I’m not alone in this. Exploring the relationship between music and mood is different—though related—to the concept of musical preference. It’s arguably more discrete in that we choose music based on how we feel or want to feel in a given moment on a different day, whereas preference tends to remain relatively consistent throughout one’s life.

Finally, when exploring implications for these findings, including how it might help the music industry fine-tune music suggestions based on demographic and personality characteristics, the researchers posed a question regarding potential healthcare implications:

Is it the act of listening to preferred music that drives improved health outcomes (regardless of the attributes featured in the music), or rather, is there a specific constellation of musical attributes (regardless of whether they are preferred by the patient) that lead to improvements more than others? (Greenberg et al., 2016)

My thought as a music therapist is that it's the combination of the two options—preference for the music and the psychoacoustical properties of the music itself—that serves as a mediator for improved health outcomes. Furthermore, the ratio of which serves a larger role is driven by the therapeutic goal. For example, when facilitating a motor-based goal, the primary driver underlying auditory-motor synchronization is rhythm. Musical preference may assist by helping to motivate a client to complete the motor exercise, but it does not serve the primary role when working towards the therapeutic outcome. In contrast, if working to reduce pain perception and anxiety, musical preference may play a larger role in working towards that outcome.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.


Greenberg, D. M., Kosinksi, M., Stillwell, D. J., Monteiro, B. L., Levitin, D. J., & Rentfrow, P.J. (2016). The song is you: Preferences for musical attribute dimensions reflect personality. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Advance online publication. doi:10/1177/1948550616641473