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How to Tell What Music Someone Likes Without Asking

A new study suggests that facial cues may reveal people's musical preferences.

Key points

  • In a new study, participants were able to accurately detect others' musical preferences by looking at isolated images of their faces.
  • Facial cues have previously been found to reveal political leanings, sexual orientation, and religiosity.
  • Music preferences may convey values and attitudes that help us decide who to befriend—and who to avoid.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Source: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Our preferences in clothing, movies, books, and home or office decor reveal wonders about our values and personality traits. Even our Facebook likes can indicate who we are and what we stand for (or at least how we hope others will perceive us). Equally revelatory are our grooming habits, expressions, and mannerisms—even those we aren’t aware of. But can our appearance reveal our specific taste in music? A new study by the University of Toronto's Laura Tian and colleagues published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that yes, actually: without knowing anything else about a person, many of us can discern their taste in music simply by looking at their face.

The Study

Tian’s team recruited 206 women and 82 men to report their musical preferences and to be photographed. These individuals weren't aware of the study’s aim—to assess whether people’s musical preferences are perceptible from their appearance—so they weren’t trying to convey their aural predilections via dress or hairstyle when they arrived at the lab. Musical preferences were organized into four main categories: energetic/rhythmic (which included electronica/dance, soul/funk, and rap), intense/rebellious (which included rock, metal, and alternative music), reflective/complex (which included jazz, folk, classical, and blues), and upbeat/conventional (which included country, pop, religious, and soundtracks). Participants rated on a scale how into these 14 common genres they were. Their photos were cropped so that their faces, hair, eyes, and mouths were isolated (since prior research has found these segments of a person’s head provide identity cues).

Tian et al. also recruited nearly 4,000 “perceivers” to judge what music styles they thought the people in the photos preferred based on viewing their full un-cropped images or cropped segments of their heads.

What the Study Found

Source: Eren Li/Pexels
Source: Eren Li/Pexels

Tian and her colleagues found that viewers were able to accurately predict people's preferences for energetic and rhythmic music by looking at images of their bodies with and without their heads cropped off. Intense and rebellious musical preferences were accurately predicted from isolated images of participants’ bodies, heads, faces, mouths, and eyes. Heads, faces, and mouths as well as full-body images also enabled viewers to accurately predict participants’ preferences for reflective and complex music. Interestingly, upbeat and conventional music preferences were less easy to predict—possibly because fans of genres in this category don’t share as many common distinguishing facial expressions, clothing styles, or other revealing tendencies or because they’re more hesitant to signal their musical preferences outwardly, the researchers reasoned.

Overall, Tian et al. found, heads were more revealing than bodies when it came to discerning participants’ musical preferences. “This coincides with research showing that people use facial cues more often than body cues when forming first impressions, presumably because facial cues contain more valid information,” they write. Fascinatingly, musical preferences were accurately discerned from individual facial features like targets’ eyes and mouths. “This may be unexpected, given that one might assume that purposeful, ephemeral cues such as dress or body movements (e.g., mannerisms) would determine music preferences’ legibility from appearance cues,” Tian et al. write. “The current findings instead suggest that stable facial features resistant to ephemeral alterations offer at least one prominent source of information about music preferences as well, dovetailing with literature suggesting that music preferences map onto people’s stable traits and values.” Such findings also echo other research that's shown us how facial cues can reveal everything from nationality and religiosity to sexual orientation and political leanings—likely because our facial expressions (and how we groom our faces) can signal dominance, trustworthiness, warmth, and, yes, attractiveness (all of which has been shown to correlate with the aforementioned traits).

What Other Ways Is Musical Preference Expressed?

Tian’s study adds to an intriguing body of research on known links between the types of music people listen to and which personality traits and behaviors they typically display. People who like pop, rap, and electronica tend to be more extroverted while people who gravitate towards heavy metal and punk are more likely to enjoy taking risks and be open to new experiences. Heavy metal and punk fans also appear to be more inclined towards impulsivity, delinquency, and Machiavellianism. Openness to new experiences also appears more common among classical music and opera lovers—who, at least according to research conducted in the 1980s and '90s, tend to obtain higher grades and advanced degrees as well as secure higher-status romantic partners.

The Takeaway

Music has been forging social bonds and shaping identities for millennia. Evolutionary psychology argues that music has facilitated the growth and increasing complexity of human groups since our species first became able to sing, dance, and make harmonious sounds with crude instruments.

“Similar to political ideology and religiosity music preferences may manifest in appearance because they encapsulate specific values and attitudes that help people to determine whom to approach and befriend,” Tian et al. explain. “Music preferences might therefore serve as proxies for troves of information about people, efficiently accessed via appearance.”

Source: George Milton/Pexels
Source: George Milton/Pexels

You can probably relate if you’ve ever bonded with a colleague over a shared musical interest or sparked new friendships based on your shared love for a particular band or music genre. But what this study shows is that such bonds aren’t only spawned from attending the same concerts or matching online because of explicitly stated penchants for particular bands. We may gravitate towards (or away) from people based on cues about what music they enjoy conveyed by their facial expressions or how they carry themselves. So next time you find yourself drawn to someone (romantically or platonically), don’t be surprised if, upon getting to know them, you learn that they share your love for a particular album or musical group.

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