Your Musical Tastes Reflect Your Thinking Style

By Andy Berger | July 24, 2015 11:37 am

listening music

Are you good at putting yourself in someone else’s shoes? Then there’s a good chance that you enjoy R&B. If, instead, you are drawn to take things apart to understand how they work, you likely prefer punk music.

That’s the conclusion of a new study on how musical tastes relate to cognition. “We wanted to address this longstanding question, Why do people like the music that they do?” says study author David Greenberg. “Because you could have one person, for example, who loves Metallica or Rage Against the Machine and then another who would rather listen to Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan.”

The study, published this week in the online journal PLOS ONE, shows that the way someone thinks – his or her cognitive style – is a better predictor of the songs they’ll like than is their personality type.

Music and Mind

Personality measures are commonly used in psychological studies. Traditional tests measure five major personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Previous music research has focused on connections with these characteristics.

However, another way of looking at people’s minds is via so-called cognitive style, which ranges from empathetic to systemizing. Empathizers, on the one hand, are strongly interested in understanding others’ emotions and thoughts. At the other extreme, systemizers are more adept at identifying patterns and analyzing systems.

For the study, over 4,000 participants completed online questionnaires rating their agreement with such statements as “I can pick up quickly if someone says one thing but means another” or “If I were buying a stereo, I would want to know about its precise technical features.” Based on their answers, participants were scored somewhere on the spectrum from empathizer to systemizer. (You can take the test yourself here.)

The participants then listened to 50 musical excerpts, across a range of genres and musical dimensions. They ranked them on a scale from 1 (dislike extremely) to 9 (like extremely).

When they analyzed these results researchers found that empathizers were more likely to enjoy mellow music, such as R&B/soul, adult contemporary, and soft rock. Meanwhile, systemizers enjoyed more intense music, including punk, heavy metal, and hard rock. These traits better predicted musical tastes than any of the five standard personality traits.

And the findings held true even at very granular levels within a given musical genre. For example, highly empathetic individuals preferred mellow rock over intense rock, selecting Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” over “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. The opposite was true for the systemizers.

Emotion and Analysis

The findings make sense in light of how we relate to music, both connecting with it emotionally and analyzing its composition. Empathetic individuals were inclined towards songs that were relaxing and melancholy, while systemizers enjoyed the fast-paced and complex examples.

Daniel Levitin, a musician, neuroscientist, and author of This is Your Brain on Music, feels that this study fits nicely into our broader understanding of how personal qualities shape our artistic inclinations. “This is situated within a series of studies that are pointing to the relationship of personalities and now brain styles… to an underlying aesthetic sense,” said Levitin. “Things that seem to have nothing to do with music can help us better understand musical preferences.”


Top image by arvitalyaa/ Shutterstock



CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology
  • Lyn Lull

    what if you like all kinds of music from classical to R&B to rock or heavy metal ?

    • OWilson

      Then you must be a very mixed up person, full of contradictions, and actually may be dangerous to society.

      On another Discovery blog, they describe a promising “treatment” for your malady. They say it works while you sleep, but they may be referring to “induced” sleep.


      • Simon Marlan

        I listen to everything from classical to hip hop and I am totally weird with a high iq and love analyzing people.

        • OWilson

          Turn down you scarcasm detector a little!

      • Micah Petterson

        I love Gabber, what does that make me?

  • Jamesrsabo

    1000 Dollars Only Few Hours With dddiiisss ­ .. < w­w­w.­W­o­r­k­s­H­o­n­e­­y.C­­­­­o­­­­­m

  • Uncle Al

    The findings make sense” Psychoabble I’m happy from Baroque through Tom Lehrer to Sammy Hagar and Ozzy Osbourne. Everything and its opposite are psychologically true, and treatable. If the patient gets better, it was sick. If the patient gets worse, it was well.

    Sheryl Crow? No. One must have standards.

    • ejhaskins

      Yeah! Must have Tom Lehrer! He makes a long drive easier! :-)

  • Ravenna Anastasia

    so perhaps I am a well-rounded, balanced person because I enjoy all types of music and it is the few types I do not enjoy that is telling?

    • mary.peters13


    • buster01

      Maybe indecisive?

      • Melissa Robi

        Here is how you can get some extra funds for freelancing few hours weekly from your living room>Find out more by clicking on my disqus profile

  • ejhaskins

    How very odd! Maybe I am just a non-thinker since I dislike just about all the “music” that us talked about here.
    Where’s Gilbert and Sullivan? Where’s Concert Band music or Brass band music or bagpipes or Flute or . . . . ? Where’s Folk? Where’s Jazz (or any genre)? Where’s Beethoven, or Mozart of Hummel or . . . .?
    or otherwise stoopid article.

    • OWilson

      You beat me to it.

      This progressive Iphone, Kardashian generation thinks classical music is Chicago or Led Zeppelin. Lol

      • mehitchcock

        Oh jeez you sound like the people in the 1690’s who were so mad that people were listening to that newfangled Handel instead of Palestrina.

        • OWilson

          Well Handel is appreciated by a wider audience today than back in 1690. So is Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Shakespeare and Homer.

          I’m not sure Lady Ga Ga and Puff Daddy will be around quite as long, :)

          • mehitchcock

            Very difficult to say in the moment which culture will stick and which will be disposable. We’d have to wait till you are dead and I am very old to even get a hint of what history will deem memorable.

            Due to the nature of disposable culture, I cannot make a better reference than Handel, because the hundreds of forgettable forgotten composers who were also performing at the time are… forgotten.

            Either way, the point stands as Led Zepplin is as likely to be long remembered as Hildergard Von Bingen, for instance.

          • OWilson

            Who? :)

      • Megadead

        I’ve read another article about this same study, and it said that people who think their taste in music is better than others’ tend to be assholes.

        • OWilson

          What do they call folks like me who enjoy every genre of music?

          What do they call those who make totally wrong assumptions from a simple comment? :)

          • Megadead

            Who said anything about you?

            And you do not enjoy every genre of music. Let’s be real.

          • OWilson

            There ya go !

            Do you charge for this stuff?

      • gcblues

        im just here to complain about the younger generation and ruin the world. lol lets make fun of the progression of music because dead white men make the only good music.

    • Uncle Al

      Cf. Private Bill Millin, “The Mad Piper of D-Day,” playing Hielan’ Laddie as he marched down Sword Beach with his great highland bagpipes skirling over the noise of battle, untouched amidst the tremendous ongoing slaughter about him. One enjoys a certain satisfaction in bagpipes empirically falsifying psychology. “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”

  • ronaldmsonntag

    I also found the limited music genres described in the article disappointing. I like all types of “interesting” music. It can be rock, blues, classical, modern, almost anything as long as it isn’t repetitive and boring.

  • Sieben Stern

    cue the music snobs in 3..2….

    • j2saret

      The pine leaf boys

  • Lee Riffee

    My taste in music depends largely on the mood I am in – some days I like mellow tunes and other days I like the fast paced, heavy stuff. Not sure what that would say about me, though.

  • Larry Etkin

    I haven’t seen anything in the discussion about cultural context. Would the theory hold up with people who have grown up in India or elsewhere in the Asian regions? And how about people who we describe as aborigines whose musical acculturation are sometimes based on tonal scales that are quite different from what we in the west consider normal? As for me, I can enjoy most pop and rock until we approach heavy metal, but I also note that music which in my youth was considered “heavy” is now showing up as elevator musak. And when we cross into “classical” music, I love most symphonic, tolerate most chamber type pretty well, but hate opera. My point being that I think a study like this, and the conversation it has generated, need a lot more rigor than what I’m seeing to achieve relevance, IMHO.

  • thehotgates

    The EQ test appears to require strongly held opinions. iow, w/o strongly held beliefs, you cannot achieve a high score on that test. I’ve found that strongly held beliefs tend to interfere with reaching the truth of a matter.

    (In real life, I’m a synthetic thinker with eclectic tastes in music. Truth and reality are dependent upon the known facts, not upon my opinions or beliefs about the facts.)


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