Rock It Science: New Study Equates Musical Tastes to Personality Traits

"wbeem", Image by Scott Diussa

“wbeem”, Image by Scott Diussa

Many people have had the experience of hearing a new song for the first time and instantly being thunderstruck by it. They ask out loud or else think to themselves “Who and what was that I just heard?!” Next, they quickly race off to start Googling away in an attempt to identify the tune that just so totally captured their senses.

But what was it about the listeners’ musical tastes that led to this? Moreover, are their affinities for certain musical styles and artists a reliable indicator of their personalities – – and vice versa?

Researchers at University of Cambridge in the UK and Stanford University in the US have recently devised a new method for predicting musical tastes. Their study was published on PLOS One in a fascinating paper entitled Musical Preferences Are Linked to Cognitive Styles, by David M. Greenberg, Simon Baron-Cohen, David J. Stillwell, Michal Kosinski and Peter J. Rentfrow.

These findings were written up in an interesting article in the August 8, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled If You’re Empathetic, You Probably Aren’t Into AC/DC by Daniel Akst. I will sum up, annotate and, well, orchestrate a few questions of my own.

Until the introduction of this new method, researchers traditionally pursued correlating musical tastes with the big five personality traits. These include:

  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Neuroticism
  • Openness to new experiences

For instance, extroverts tend to prefer pop and funk. However, test subjects were asked to rate their preferences according to genre which, in turn, can have many gradations and variances. The article mentioned that rock music can include everyone from Elton John to AC/DC, the latter of whom appear in an accompanying photo to the story. (For that matter, who would have ever expected Springsteen to cover “Highway to Hell” during his tour of Australia in 2014?)

The five traits were also previously covered in a different context in the March 20, 2015 Subway Fold Post entitled Studies Link Social Media Data with Personality and Health Indicators.

Using this new methodology, the researchers turned to whether a person is an empathizer “who detects and responds to other people’s mental states” or a systemizer “who detects and responds to systems by analyzing their rules”. The article includes a link for readers to test themselves to assess their own musically influenced leanings towards one personality type or the other.

Leading the research was David M. Greenberg, himself a sax player, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in psychology at the University of Cambridge. The combination of his academic and musical interests is what led him to this line of research. He and his team were seeking a more precise and measurable “sonic and psychological” factors in their efforts to develop a system to predict musical tastes.

The data was gathered from 4,000 volunteers who were tested for empathy and then were asked to rate 50 songs. The findings showed that:

  • Empathizers preferred R&B and soft rock (“mellow” music), folk and country (“unpretentious” music), Euro pop (“contemporary” music), but not heavy metal. Within genres, they preferred “gentler jazz”, as well as “sadder, low energy music”.
  • Systemizers preferred “more intense music” including “punk and heavy metal”.

In the future, this research might be helpful to music streaming services like Spotify to further improve their song recommendation engine. (See also the August 14, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Spotify Enhances Playlist Recommendations Processing with “Deep Learning” Technology.)

Mr. Greenberg is also interested in researching the reciprocal of his research findings in regards to whether particular types of music can raise empathy or systemizing levels.

My questions are as follows:

  • Might this research also be helpful to a startup like Reify which is developing augmented reality apps for music as covered in the July 21, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Prints Charming: A New App Combines Music With 3D Printing?
  • Is this research applicable to the composition of music scores for movies, plays and TV shows as storytellers and producers seek to heighten the emotional impacts of certain scenes? (The December 19, 2014 update Subway Fold post entitled Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains discussed Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, a book by Dr. Jeffrey Zacks that, among many other things, covered this type of effect.)
  • Is this research applicable to marketers in developing their ad campaigns aimed at specific demographic groups?

One thought on “Rock It Science: New Study Equates Musical Tastes to Personality Traits

  1. Pingback: Musical “Omnivores” Proliferate as Tastes in Tunes are Becoming More Diversified |

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