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?

Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains

By a very fortuitous coincidence on August 28, 2014, two articles appeared online in very different publications but with very similar facts and implications about using MRI technology to research the neurological effects of movies and music upon their audiences. Let’s, well, scan these features together and see what we find.

First, everyone loves watching movies and nowadays they can be viewed on screens everywhere in theaters, televisions, computers, mobile devices and gaming systems whenever it is convenient for the viewer. The work of a psychologist named Uri Hasson was reported on WIRED.com in a fascinating article by Greg Miller entitled How Movies Sychronize the Brains of an Audience. As reported here, has Hasson employed MRIs to scan viewers of the same scenes in a series of films from different genres. He recently presented his finding to a group of film industry professionals.

He was surprised to find that highly similar regions of the brain were showing specifically increased activity among the viewers of the clips of the same films, That is, discernible patterns emerged in the scans while viewing westerns, action movies, mysteries and so on. However, a comedy on cable produced a much lower level of Synchronicity among the test subjects. (There are two very informative graphics of the MRI’s outputs accompanying this story.) In effect, different films and different genres produced more highly correlated levels of such synchronicity than others. One Hollywood director is quoted here about his concerns that movie studies might soon be using MRIs to test movies at pre-release test screenings.

Furthermore, I think it would be interesting to know if Netflix might also be able to apply this research. This because starting in 2006 and concluding with the “Netflix Prize” being awarded in 2009, the company ran a contest challenging contestants to devise an algorithm that would improve their movie rating and recommendation system. That is, when subscribers order film A for viewing, Netflix will additionally recommend films B, C and D based on the reviews of the user base. So, would the added application of MRI data and analyses possibly improve the current recommendation algorithm being used at Netflix?

Second, is there actually anyone out there who still doesn’t get chills up and down their spine whenever they hear the opening bars of Born to Run? This likely happens even thought you have heard it 10,000 times before. Do you recall the first time you ever heard it come blasting out of the radio?

Using MRI technology in the context of researching why tunes have such a strongly evocative effect upon our brains, was another engaging report entitled Why Your Favorite Song Takes You Down Memory Lane posted on Medicalxpress.com. According to this story, the test subjects in a study were all played six songs (four were “iconic”, one was a favorites and one was unfamiliar), of five minutes each, from very different types of music. The scientists conducting this study found distinct patterns depending on whether that subject either liked or disliked a song and another pattern for the fave among the group.

Moreover, the fave increased activity in the hippocampus*, the brain region that controls memory and emotion, thus causing the resulting connection between music and memory.

I highly recommend clicking through and reading both of these articles together for all of the scientific details of how these studies were done and their conclusions were reached.

Also, for a terrific and thoroughly engaging detailed analysis of the neuroscience of music I also recommend This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin (Plume/Penguin, 2007)

December 19, 2014 Update:

The next set of analyses and enhancements to our cinematic experience can be found in a newly published book that explains the science of how movies affect our brains entitled Flicker: Your Brain on Movies (Oxford University Press, 2014), by Dr. Jeffrey Zacks. The author was interviewed during a fascinating segment of the December 18, 2014 broadcast of The Brian Lehrer Show on WYNC radio. Among other things, he spoke about why audiences cry during movies (even when the films are not very good), sometimes root for the villain, and move to duck out of the way when an object on the screen seems to be coming right at them such as the giant bolder rolling after Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much of this is intentionally done by the filmmakers to manipulate audiences into heightened emotional responses to key events as they unfold on the big screen.

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* Isn’t that also what they call the place where hippos go to school?