Within the few minutes it takes for a song to play, we decide whether we want to press repeat, next, or even buy it. The songs on our iPod reflect more than just the artists we like, they provide a small window into how our brains work. According to a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE, although musical tastes may fluctuate over time, our empathy levels and cognitive styles can predict our musical preferences.

"This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self. Music is an expression of who we are emotionally, socially, and cognitively,” said Dr. Jason Rentfrow, senior study author, in the news release.

Generally, many people believe musical preferences reflect characteristics such as age, personality, and values. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found people who are open to new experiences tend to prefer music from the blues, jazz, classical, and folk genres. Those who are extraverted and “agreeable” tend to prefer music such as pop, soundtrack, religious, soul, funk, electronic, and dance. While these studies prove personality does influence musical tastes, Rentfrow and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge in the UK are curious as to whether there are other psychological mechanisms that come into play when it comes to musical preference.

The researchers investigated the cognitive and affective bases for music choice by asking a large cohort of people to report their reactions to musical stimuli in multiple studies. Over 4,000 participants were recruited mainly through the myPersonality Facebook app. The app asked Facebook users to take a selection of psychology-based questionnaires, and the results were allowed to be placed on their profiles for other users to see (take test here).

The participants were then asked to listen to and rate 50 musical pieces. Library examples of musical stimuli from 26 genres and subgenres were used to reduce the probability that the participants would have any personal or cultural association with the piece of music. During these experiments, the researchers tested the theory of empathizing-systemizing. Empathizers were defined as those who have a drive to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, meaning they react emotionally and physiologically to music and while performing it. Systemizers were more likely to be analytical, meaning they analyze and deconstruct sonic features and interpret how detailed elements in a song relate to it as a whole when perceiving and interpreting music.

The findings revealed people who score high on empathy tended to prefer mellow music (R&B, soft rock, and adult contemporary genres), unpretentious music (country, folk, and singer/songwriter genres) and contemporary music (electronica, Latin, acid jazz, and Euro pop). Empathizers showed a disdain for punk and heavy metal. Contrastingly, people who scored high on systemizing tended to prefer intense music, but disliked mellow and pretentious musical styles. Even within specified genres, empathizers preferred mellow, unpretentious jazz, while systemizers preferred intense, sophisticated (complex and avant-garde) jazz. They also preferred music with a high degree of cerebral depth and complexity.

High on empathy

  • Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
  • Come Away with Me – Norah Jones
  • All of Me – Billie Holliday
  • Crazy Little Thing Called Love – Queen

High on systemizing

  • Concerto in C – Antonio Vivaldi
  • Etude Opus 65 No 3 — Alexander Scriabin
  • God Save the Queen – The Sex Pistols
  • Enter Sandman – Metallica

It was through the use of the empathizing-systemizing theory that the researchers were able to identify the ways in which musical tastes are different based on cognitive “brain types.” David Greenberg, from the University’s Department of Psychology, believes the findings are true and better predictors of musical tastes than previous indicators.

"[T]heir 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,” he said in the news release.

The study has the potential to have several implications in the field of medicine and music. The researchers want to delve into whether music with emotional depth can actually increase empathy. This could become an essential component for music therapies that help boost empathy, especially for those with autism who often rank below average in empathy but have heightened levels of systemizing.

Musically (and monetarily), these findings may be useful for the music industry and streaming platforms like Pandora and Apple Music. "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. By knowing an individual's thinking style, such services might in the future be able to fine tune their music recommendations to an individual,” Greenberg said.

So, according to this research, your music playlist says a lot more about you than just your obsession with Queen Bey.

Sources: Baron-Choen S, Kosinski M, Greenberg DM et al. Musical preferences are linked to cognitive styles. PLOS ONE. 2015.

Gosling SD and Rentgrow PJ. The do re mi's of everyday life: the structure and personality correlates of music preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003.