Musical Preferences and the Brain

Hypotheses about how brain differences explain why we like the music we do.

Posted Dec 21, 2017

Source: brian/attronline

Can musical preferences be explained by differences in the brain? Two years ago, my research team at the University of Cambridge began to investigate this area through online studies and published findings that musical preferences are linked to three broad thinking styles—also referred to as “brain types” (Greenberg et al., 2015). Empathizers (Type E) have a strong interest in people’s thoughts and emotions. Systemizers (Type S) have a strong interest in patterns, systems and the rules that govern the world. And those who score relatively equally on empathy and systemizing are classified as “balanced” (Type B).

Our studies of over 4,000 participants found that empathizers preferred mellow music that had low energy, sad emotions, and emotional depth, as heard in R&B, soft rock, and singer-songwriter genres. For example, empathizing was linked to preferences for “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones and Jeff Buckley’s recording of “Hallelujah”. On the other hand, systemizers showed the complete opposite musical preference profile: they preferred more intense music, as heard in hard rock, punk and heavy metal genres. They also preferred music with intellectual depth and complexity as heard in avant-garde classical genres. For example, systemizing was linked to preferences for Alexander Scriabin’s “Etude opus 65 no 3”. Importantly, those who are Type B, had a tendency to prefer music that spans more of a range than the other two thinking styles. You can view an interview about our study with CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen here.

Though our research found differences in musical preferences across thinking styles, we did not make neurobiological observations (for example with fMRI) about how musical taste can be explained through differences in the brain. However, there are several speculative hypotheses that provide some clues as to the biology behind why we like the music we do and why we found the results that we did.

David Huron, a Professor at Ohio State University has a hypothesis about why some people find sad music pleasurable (Huron, 2011). He suggests that for some people, when listening to sad music, the hormone prolactin is secreted. Prolactin is a peptide hormone that is released primarily by the pituitary, but it is also synthesized within the central nervous system. Prolactin produces feelings of tranquility, calmness, and consolation. It is released in ‘psychic’ tears of both happiness and sadness (but not when chopping an onion!), iduring nursing, after sexual intercourse, and when we feel empathy for someone who is sad. And now it is suggested that it is released when listening to certain types of music. Huron says that the acoustic features of sad music “emulate” the features of sad speech. “Through an empathic response” these musical cues may evoke feelings of tenderness or sadness which sends a signal for prolactin to be released. The release of prolactin emits a consoling and soothing effect. This is one hypothesis as to why people who score high on empathy report that they feel “warmth” in response to songs that are more mellow and sad. For people who do not find pleasure in sad music, the secretion of prolactin in response to sad music may be reduced. This is only a hypothesis, and we need more research testing the direct evidence for Huron's hypothesis.  

Further, it remains unclear whether prolactin is the only important hormone or whether other hormones, such as oxytocin, play a role in preferences for mellow and sad music. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that is produced in the hypothalamus, and it’s been found to be released during childbirth, sex, and is involved in social bonding. A study by Ulrica Nilsson, a Professor of Nursing at Örebro University, showed that patients recovering from open-heart surgery had an increase in oxytocin levels if they listened to ‘soothing’ music that was described as soft, dreamy, slow in speed, and low in volume (Nilsson, 2009). Another hypothesis stemming from Nilsson’s finding is that listening to mellow and soothing music may increase oxytocin more so than listening to more intense music. Again, there is still no direct evidence showing links between musical preferences and oxytocin or prolactin, a topic that needs to be investigated in future research.

Why might Type E (empathizers) be more prone to releasing prolactin in response to sad and mellow music? There is some neurobiological evidence to suggest that males with Type E have a larger hypothalamic region in the brain, and it is this region that regulates the secretion of prolactin from the pituitary gland (Lai et al., 2012). The study has not yet been tested in females, but one might hypothesize that individuals who are Type E (empathizers) may have greater preferences for mellow and sad music because they tend to have a larger hypothalamic region of the brain.

Why do Type S (systemizers) prefer more intellectually complex music such as avant-garde classical music? There is neurobiological evidence to suggest that gray matter volume in cingulate and dorsal medial prefrontal areas are larger in males with greater systemizing tendencies (Lai et al., 2012). These regions are implicated in processes related to cognitive control, monitoring, and error detection. Our team has hypothesized that more analytic regions of the brain such as these may be associated with preferences for music that is complex. Music that is more avant-garde may pose an intellectual and analytic challenge for systemizers. This is only a hypothesis and again, it needs to be tested rigorously in future research. 

Research on musical preferences and the brain is in its infancy, but we are hopeful that these initial findings and hypotheses will lead to future discussion and neurobiological studies into differences in brain structure and activity that explain differences in musical preferences.


Greenberg, D. M., Baron-Cohen, S., Stillwell, D. J., Kosinski, M., & Rentfrow, P. J. (2015). Musical preferences are linked to cognitive styles. PLOS ONE. 10(7), e0131

Huron, D. (2011). Why is sad music pleasurable? A possible role for prolactin. Musicae Scientiae, 15(2), 146-158.

Lai, M. C., Lombardo, M. V., Chakrabarti, B., Ecker, C., Sadek, S. A., Wheelwright, S. et al. (2012). Individual differences in brain structure underpin empathizing–systemizing cognitive styles in male adults. Neuroimage, 61(4), 1347-1354.

Nilsson, U. (2009). Soothing music can increase oxytocin levels during bed rest after open‐heart surgery: a randomised control trial. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 18(15), 2153-2161.