What type of music do you listen to? Why can this otherwise innocent question cause some to sweat with anxiety? It’s because deep down we know that our taste in music is not just a reflection of our musical preference, but also insight into the very essence of who we are. The French scholar Jules Combarieu described the union most eloquently when he explained that “music is the art of thinking with sound,” and no one wants other people listening in on their thoughts. Although it was long suspected that music and personality were deeply entwined, science has recently delved into the intricate relationship and shown just how significant one’s musical preference is.
Perhaps one of the most notable studies into the connection between musical preference and personality was conducted by Dr. Adrian North, now working at Curtin University in Australia. In a 2010 study, North surveyed 36,518 people in more than 60 countries about their preference for 104 musical styles, as well as their personality. In doing so, he found that quite a lot about both a person’s personality and their lifestyle can be inferred by their musical taste.
“People do actually define themselves through music and relate to other people through it, but we haven’t known in detail how music is connected to identity,” North explained, as reported by PsychCentral. “We have always suspected a link between music taste and personality. This is the first time that we’ve been able to look at it in real detail. No one has ever done this on this scale before.”
North’s Summary of Music and Personality
Rap/Hip-Hop: high self-esteem, outgoing, not very eco-friendly
Heavy Metal: gentle, low self-esteem, reserved, and comfortable with themselves
Indie Rock: low self-esteem, creative, lazy, headstrong
Electronic/Dance: sociable, headstrong, outgoing, creative
Classical: high self-esteem, introverted, high earners, eco-friendly
Pop: high self esteem, hard working, outgoing, low creativity, nervous
To better understand how music and personality are so deeply entwined, it may be best to figure out what leads a person to listen to a specific song or type of music in the first place. A 2007 study, "Personality and music: Can traits explain how people use music in everyday life?" explained that music was associated with three main psychological functions. These included: helping to improve performance (imagine your workouts without Spotify), helping to stimulate curiosity (imagine how thoughtful you become with a song you truly love), and helping to bring out certain emotions that the listener desires (happy songs for a party, sad songs for getting over a breakup). Also, the reason that a person listens to music — to deal with emotions or as background noise — was also linked to notable differences in personality. Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, co-author of the study, writes that because mood is so closely related to personality it would make sense that musical preference gave insight to who a person was.
More Than Just Personality
Musical preference dictates much more than personality, however.
“I think that if we have the ability to take all factors into account — a person’s age, gender, nationality, social class, everything except their personality — we could probably predict 30 percent of their musical preference,” Chamorro-Premuzic explained to Medical Daily.
This is reflected in North’s research, which showed trends such as those who like “high art music” (opera, jazz, and classical) tended to be better educated, have higher income, and have greater access to financial resources than fans of other music genres.
Unfortunately, as with many psychology studies on personality and music, there was one caveat: participants lying.
“There is a difference between the music that people report to like and what they actually listen to,” Chamorro-Premuzic said. “That’s because people are aware that liking certain music is linked to certain values and personalities.”
Since people are already hypersensitive to the fact that their musical preference reflects their personality, it would make sense that those wishing to portray a certain image would purposely say they prefer a specific genre. However, Chamorro-Premuzic explained that although a person’s musical choices will always change, their personality, as of the ages of 15 to 20, is set. By recording personality and musical choices of volunteers in this age group, it was possible to gain an accurate idea of their personality.
Although personality played a big part in musical choice, other completely unrelated factors also dictate what a person likes to listen to. “You may watch a movie or hear a soundtrack that touches you and you may prefer that song,” said Chamorro-Premuzic, explaining how personal experiences also play a part in musical preference.
Also, despite the fears of suburban parents, listening to violent music will not make a person violent.
“There is no evidence that musical preference can change people’s personalities,” Charmorro-Premuzic said. “The only thing we know is that with certain types of music, people who listen to that music tend to be quite aggressive in the first place. Listening to this music releases their aggressive tendencies, but in the long run it makes them even more aggressive.”
Source: North AC. Individual Differences in Musical Taste. JSTOR. 2010.
Chamorro-Premuzic T, Furnham A. Personality and music: Can traits explain how people use music in everyday life? The British Psychological Society. 2007.