What’s On Your iPod? Music Preferences and Personality

People prefer music consistent with their personality makeup.

Posted Feb 27, 2011

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.
- Victor Hugo

 

I learn something new every day. I am a psychologist and presumably know something about the field of psychology, but until I was surfing around on the Internet this morning, I did not know that there was a line of research that linked music preferences - usually among young people - and personality makeup. This work has been written about in Psychology Today some years ago. Sorry I missed that article, not to mention the original research reports, because this line of work is interesting, and I wish that I had known about it sooner.

As a positive psychologist, I am well aware that a common way to study the effects of mood in the experimental lab is to induce a mood of interest by playing an appropriate song and assessing the effects on various tasks. So, high pitched sounds with regular rhythms and an upward trend are regarded as happy (e.g., "Walking on Sunshine"), whereas slow, low, and falling sounds are experienced as sad (e.g., "Yesterday").

And it seemed obvious to me that many people deliberately use music to regulate their moods and to enhance their motives.

But it wasn't obvious to until today that researchers have also looked at stable music preferences and how they are associated with personality (e.g., Chamorro-Premuzic, Fagan, & Furnham, 2010; Delsing, Ter Bogt, Engels, & Meeus, 2008; Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003, 2006). The research is straight-forward: Ask people what type of music they prefer and ascertain their other dispositions. Then see what goes with what. As noted, most of these studies use young people as research participants, which makes perfect sense because music plays a huge role in the life of a typical adolescent or post-adolescent. I sometimes criticize research psychologists for studying college students, simply because they can, but in the present case, there are few more appropriate samples. And I bet that the research participants enjoy completing the surveys.

The research typically classifies music preferences, and different schemes have been used. Some scheme are based on the genre (e.g., rock, jazz, classical), and others look at more abstract features of music (e.g., complexity, amount of singing).

So what's been learned?

Young people "getting to know one another" frequently talk about their music preferences. Gee, and I thought they would talk about the meaning of life. Actually, they are talking about the meaning of life, just in a language that is most familiar to them.

Young people draw strong and accurate inferences about someone based on his or her music preferences. So, music serves not only an intra-personal role but also an inter-personal one, signifying to others something important about an embraced identity.

Personality figures into music preferences in predictable ways. So, extraverted people prefer happy and energetic music. Those open to experience prefer complex music. Those who are "blirtacious" (a word I had never before encountered but apparently meaning the tendency to blirt out thoughts and feelings as soon as they are experienced - goodness, we all know blirtacious folks, and now we have a label for them!) have a small tendency to prefer rebellious music. Those who are depressed dislike upbeat music. And so on.

Most of this research is cross-sectional, measuring music preferences and personality characteristics at the same time. We do not know which might comes first. It would be intriguing if music preferences actually led to personality differences among young people, but critics of contemporary music notwithstanding, that is probably not what happens. The opinion expressed in the theoretical literature is that music preferences are markers of personality characteristics as opposed to simple causes (Baker & Bor, 2008). A steady diet of upbeat music will likely not make someone an extravert, and nonstop exposure to classical music will likely not make someone an intellectual. But those who are extraverted or intellectual or happy or sad will find music that is consistent with who they are, just as they do with respect to their friends, their clothing, their pets, and the books, movies, and sports they prefer

The more general point of this research, which I applaud with enthusiasm (i.e., rhythmically and energetically), is that psychologists insufficiently study what people actually do. Young people - and older ones, too - often listen to music, and music preferences should be as important a topic of concern to psychologists as are the abstract "processes" like memory that we usually study (Rozin, 2006).

References

Baker, F., & Bor, W. (2008). Can music preference indicate mental health status in young people? Australasian Psychiatry, 16, 284-288.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T., Fagan, P., & Furnham, A. (2010). Personality and uses of music as predictors of preferences for music consensually classified as happy, sad, complex, and social. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4, 205/213.

Delsing, J. M. M., Ter Bogt, T. F. M., Engels, R. C. M. E., & Meeus, W. H. J. (2008). Adolescents' music preferences and personality characteristics. European Journal of Personality, 22, 109-130.

Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2003). The do-re-mi's of everyday life: The structure and personality correlates of music preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1236-1256.

Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2006). Message in a ballad: The role of music preferences in interpersonal perception. Psychological Science, 17, 236-242.

Rozin, P. (2006). Domain denigration and process preference in academic psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 365-376.

 

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