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Music and the Ties that Bind

Why do we like people with similar taste in music?

A friend of mine used to say, only half joking, that he judged new people he met according to whether or not they appreciated the music of Nina Simone. It turns out that he may have been on to something.

Our favorite music and cherished musical memories are often topics of conversation, whether we are meeting people for the first time or reminiscing with old friends. People all over the world communicate and bond over music. There is now quite a bit of evidence that shared musical preferences create and strengthen social relations. But why this should be so is a bit of a mystery. Is it simply that we like people who are similar to us in various ways, or might there be something more going on?

Our musical preferences convey both personality traits and value orientations. Music might bring people together, either because shared musical preferences are evidence of similar personalities, or because shared tastes indicate shared values. The authors of a recent article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin argue that it is the values we convey by our musical choices, rather than personality traits, that play a role in music's social bonding effect.

In the first study, researchers examined different music fan groups (rock, metal, hip-hop, and electro) among young Germans who had been recruited through internet sites targeted at fans of these four musical styles. The participants were asked to imagine meeting a "target" person who had certain music preferences or no preference. They were then asked to indicate what values that person might hold, and finally asked to rate their social attraction toward that person. Not surprisingly, participants liked targets whose taste in music mirrored their own, rather than those who professed different tastes, and this affinity seemed to have been mediated through perceived similarity in values.

The second study, designed to replicated and augment the first, focused on fans of metal and hip-hop. Participants were asked to imagine a target person with similar or dissimilar musical taste, or with no stated preference. They were also asked to rate their similarity to or difference from the target, regarding a number of different value orientations and personality traits, and to rate their social attraction towards that person. Again, researchers found that participants tended to be attracted towards others with similar values and personality traits. Shared musical preferences led to increased social attraction, and again, this was seen to be mediated by value similarity. (On a side note, different musical preference were not associated with social rejection, but with neutral evaluations of others.)

Finally, a third study tested these hypotheses outside of the lab, with undergraduate students at a university in Hong Kong who had been randomly paired up as roommates by the university administration. The researchers measured the values and music preferences of each student, then asked each some questions about his or her roommate. Again, similar music preferences were correlated with similarity in values, and perceived similarity in personal traits was associated with social attraction. Interestingly, the more that similar students preferred Western (as opposed to Chinese) musical styles, the more they shared value orientations.

So whether your musical tastes run to the music of Nina Simone, Jean Sibelius, or Jay-Z, finding someone who shares those tastes might just be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.


Boer D, Fischer R, Strack M, Bond MH, Lo E, Lam J. How shared preferences in music create bonds between people: values as the missing link. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2011 Sep 37(9):1159-71. Epub 2011 May 4.

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