What Your Favorite Music Reveals About Your Brain
If you like R&B but hate heavy metal, a new study explains why—and what it means about the way your mind works.
Hate punk rock? Despise country? Science can explain.
A groundbreaking University of Cambridge study published in PLOS ONE Wednesday has linked the type of music we like to something deeper than age or personality: the way we think.
Led by Ph.D. student and jazz saxophonist David Greenberg, researchers discovered a strong link between certain ways of thinking and the type of music an individual prefers. Their findings suggest cognitive styles may be an equally important indicator of music preference as demographics—if not more.
Over 4,000 people participated in the study, all of them recruited through a Facebook app called MyPersonality. Each was instructed to fill out a 60-item self-reporting psychology questionnaire, which relied on a 4-point scale. Once finished, participants were directed to listen to and rate 50 different musical pieces, stemming from 26 genres and subgenres.
Researchers then paired two specific cognitive styles with the music rankings. The first is empathy, which they define as “our ability to recognize and react to the thoughts and feelings of others.” The second, systemizing, is described as “our interest in understanding the rules of underpinning systems such as the weather, music, or car engines.”
Those who received higher scores for empathy tended to prefer “mellow, unpretentious, and contemporary music” such as R&B, soft rock, country, folk, electronica, and Euro pop. The same group reported disliking more extreme styles, like heavy metal and punk rock. The systemizing high scorers were the opposite, showing a penchant for intense music and a dislike for mellow.
“Although people’s music choices fluctuate over time, we’ve discovered a person’s empathy levels and thinking style predict what kind of music they like,” writes Greenberg, who’s studying to get his Ph.D. at Cambridge’s Department of Psychology. “In fact, their cognitive style—whether they’re strong on empathy or strong on systems—can be a better predictor of what music they like than their personality.”
After connecting cognitive style and music preference, Greenberg and his team explore the specific elements of each way of thinking—in other words, what makes empathetic people love Norah Jones. Those with high levels of empathy, they found, liked music that fell in one of three categories: low energy (gentle), negative emotions (sad), or emotional depth (poetic or relaxing). This group specifically liked songs like Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” Billie Holliday’s “All of Me,” and Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
The systemizing group, on the other hand, looked for music with high energy (thrilling), positive emotions (animated and fun), and a high degree of complexity. This group gave high ratings to tunes such as The Sex Pistol’s “God Save the Queen,” Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto in C,” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”
The idea that our brain is calling the shots music-wise is an enlightening, oddly comforting conclusion—even for the authors. “This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self,” says senior author Dr. Jason Rentfrow. “Music is an expression of who we are emotionally, socially, and cognitively.”
In time, the research could prove critical for digital music executives who are anxious to find a way to sway customers away from the competition. “This new study is a fascinating extension to the ‘empathizing-systemizing’ theory of psychological individual differences,” says study member Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. “The research may help us understand those at the extremes, such as people with autism, who are strong systemizers.”
Greenberg, whose experience as a saxophonist helped inspire the question and inform the study, can also see the theory becoming big business. “A lot of money is put into algorithms to choose what music you may want to listen to, for example on Spotify and Apple Music,” says Greenberg. “By knowing an individual’s thinking style, such services might in the future be able to fine-tune their music recommendations to an individual.”