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The Psychology of Musical Preferences

What do your musical preferences say about your personality?

Would you ever go out with someone who listens to Justin Bieber? Unfortunately, I do.

My girlfriend and I have many common interests, but when it comes to music, her love of mainstream pop is hard for me to digest. So, what do we know about the psychology of musical preferences?

There are two radically opposed views about this: One is that song preferences are completely random (this includes the idea that arbitrary subjective experiences can make you like or dislike the same song). The other is that our musical choices reflect important aspects of our personality. As you may have guessed, I agree with the latter — then again, they call me Mr. Personality.

How is it then that our musical preferences come to reveal our inner thoughts and feelings? The answer is really quite simple, namely that music fulfills three important psychological functions. Indeed, scientific research shows that people listen to music in order to: (a) improve their performance on certain tasks (music helps us combat boredom and achieve our optimal levels of attention while driving, studying, and working); (b) stimulate their intellectual curiosity (by concentrating and analysing the music we hear); and, most importantly (c) manipulate or influence their own emotional states with the goal of achieving a desired mood state, such as happiness, excitement, or sadness.

Given that mood states are closely related to our personality (in fact, personality is to climate what mood is to weather), and given that people use music for emotional regulation, a scientific understanding of musical preferences should provide the perfect window into a person's soul.

Yet few robust links between personality and musical preferences have been identified so far. In fact, most findings are far from counterintuitive. For example, aggressive people like heavy metal, clever people like jazz and classical, and rebellious people like hip hop and rock.

This suggests that you do not need to be a personality expert to understand the psychology of music. Ask laypeople to provide an informal profile of someone based on their favourite playlist and they will probably be as accurate as the best psychometric test. As a matter of fact, most people do this already: When we first visit someone's home, we make instant judgments about that person's personality based on his or her DVD and CD collection, books, and art—and these judgments are quite accurate.

Why, then, is the science of musical preferences not superior to common sense? The answer is that almost every study conducted to date has classified musical preferences according to established musical genres, but such categories have no psychological value at all. Indeed, musical genres are there to describe music, not people. Along these lines, three important points should be noted:

  1. Most people listen to a wide range of musical genres, especially now that music has become more accessible (cheap downloads, free streaming, easy sharing, youtube videos, etc).
  2. The choice of a particular musical genre is driven mostly by our social identity (e.g., if you think of yourself as an intellectual you will like jazz or classical, if you see yourself as a rebel you will like rock or heavy metal, although preference for rock and heavy metal is more common today in middle-aged IT programmers than in youth in revolt, and the intellectuals of tomorrow will probably listen to 50cc and Jay Z). Thus, age, sex, and socio-economic status are more relevant than personality when it comes to explaining any genre-based preferences.
  3. The major function of music is emotional, but psychologists have yet to understand the connections between different songs and different emotions. This is a major task, not least because of the amount of music that exists.

In order to overcome the limitations of past research and advance our scientific understanding of musical preferences, we have developed the first online Music-based Personality Profiler and Music Discovery tool. Our ambitious goal is to map the most comprehensive catalogue of music onto different human emotions. Rather than assuming that certain connections exist, our understanding of music will be based entirely on what you feel, making this the first user-generated classification of music.

Want to try out our site to see if you and your partner are musically compatible? Click here to find out if you're more like Bruno Mars or Ed Sheeran!

For more details on this and my other research, or to take part in some of our studies and get instant feedback on your personality, click here.

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