6 Common Factors Influencing Your Music Preferences

Why do we like some musical styles more than others?

Posted Sep 20, 2019

Music is an important part of our life. The average person listens to music about 14 percent of their waking lives. Why do we like the music we do? Where do our music preferences come from? The following describes some of the main psychological factors that underlie people’s music preferences (Gasser, 2019; Rentfrow & Levitin, 2019).

1. Personality traits. People prefer styles of music that are consistent with their personalities. For instance, people who have a need for creative and intellectual stimulation prefer unconventional and complex musical styles (e.g., classical, jazz, folk), and that people who are sociable and enthusiastic prefer musical styles that are energetic and lively. Music preferences reveal valuable information about a person’s character.

2. Identity motive. Music is part of who we are. People are drawn to musical styles that validate their self-perceptions and communicate that information to others. For example, listening to innovative music can serve to communicate the belief that one is creative and unconventional. By expressing one’s music preferences, individuals are effectively revealing that they possess beliefs and values that are similar to those of others with the same music preferences.

3. Age.  Musical preferences tend to form in late adolescence and persist throughout adulthood. Music heard during childhood and adolescence creates more durable memories than music heard at other ages. The music we listen during our early teens creates a strong nostalgia in later years. However, as people get older, their music preference changes. For example, adolescent tend to have preferences for intense music, and young adults express preferences for mellow and contemporary dance music, and middle-age adults displayed their strongest preferences for sophisticated and soft music. In essence, the changes in musical preferences reflect the changes in social and psychological development.

4. Mood management. People prefer styles of music that support their mood or emotional state. For example, listening to uplifting music may help to maintain a positive mood. Fast and upbeat music complement various energetic activities, from dancing to socializing. Simple music at a soft listening level is psychologically soothing.

5. The importance of context. Contextual factors affect preferences for specific types of music.  For example, in a dining hall, we tend to prefer hearing the soft music that makes it easier to keep up with the conversation. When driving in busy traffic, there is a strong preference for relaxing music. And when exercising, people prefer upbeat and stimulating music.

6. Exposure effects.  Exposures shape our musical preferences. We tend to prefer the music that we are most familiar with. One explanation is that repeated exposures can be considered as a form of classical conditioning that can increase liking of stimuli through a process of conditioning. However, increased exposure to stimuli may result in habituation or less liking over time.

In short, we are drawn to musical styles that satisfy and reinforce our psychological needs. A better understanding of our music preferences can help to discover things about ourselves, and others on the basis of their music preferences. For example, evidence shows that similarities in music preferences may contribute to relationship satisfaction (romantic partners or roommates).

Finally, it is worth mentioning that a not-insignificant portion of the population (around 4 percent) suffers from a condition known as amusia (commonly known as tone deafness). Amusia is likely to result from genetic variation that affects one’s ability to correctly perceive pitch, rhythm, or sound. These individuals do find music pleasurable.


Gasser, Nolan (2019) Why You Like It? New York: Flatiron Books

Rentfrow PT, and Levitin DJ (2019) Foundations in Music Psychology: Theory and Research. MIT press.