Love soft rock but hate heavy metal? Your favorite music says a lot about how you think, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge have discovered a strong link between how we think and the types of music we listen to, suggesting that how our brain works is a more important indicator of music preference than what demographic we belong to.
The study, published in the journal Plos One, looked at how our style of thinking influences our musical choices. This was measured by looking at whether a participant scored highly on empathy (described as “our ability to recognize and react to the thoughts and feelings of others”) or on systemizing (defined as “our interest in understanding the rules underpinning systems such as the weather, music, or car engines”)—or whether they were a balance of both.
“Although people’s music choices fluctuate over time, we’ve discovered a person’s empathy levels and thinking style predicts what kind of music they like,” psychology student and lead study author David Greenberg said in a statement. “In fact, their cognitive style—whether they’re strong on empathy or strong on systems—can be a better indicator of what music they like than their personality.”
Over 4,000 people participated in the study, and all were recruited through a Facebook app called MyPersonality. Participants were asked to fill out a 60-item self-reporting psychology questionnaire, then listen to and rate 50 different pieces of music that were plucked from 26 genres and subgenres.
Participants who scored high on empathy tended to prefer “mellow, unpretentious, and contemporary music,” such as R&B, soft rock, country, and singer/songwriter genres. They steered clear of intense music, such as punk and heavy metal. Meanwhile, people who scored high on systemizing preferred intense music, and disliked mellow and unpretentious tunes.
Once researchers linked cognitive style to music preference, they dove into the specifics of what makes empathetic people love artists like Norah Jones and Damien Rice. They found those with high levels of empathy liked music that fell into one of three categories: low energy (gentle and reflective), negative emotions (sad and depressing undertones), or emotional depth (poetic and relaxing). Participants high on empathy preferred songs like Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and Billie Holliday’s “All of Me.”
On the flipside, the systemizing group preferred music that had high energy (thrilling), positive emotions (animated and fun), and had a high degree of complexity (avant-garde). They gave top ratings to songs like The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” and Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto in C.”
“This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self,” senior study author Dr. Jason Rentfrow said in a statement. It could also impact the algorithms that services like Spotify and Apple Music use to make music recommendations, helping better tailor recommendations to each individual user.
What does your favorite music say about you?
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