In one study published in 2003, researchers found that personality does play a major role in music preferences. In the study, researchers used multiple methods for mapping personality traits and correlated these with musical characteristics. Check out this table to see how well you can relate to their findings:
Findings have revealed, for instance, that individuals who prefer music with complex structures, such as this, typically have an active imagination and do not identify with conservative ideology. People who enjoy listening to upbeat and non-complex music, such as this, are typically helpful towards others, cheerful and conventional. Those who enjoy intense music like this typically take risks, and consider themselves intelligent. This kind of covariance of personality traits with musical structures is easy to understand as typical types of listeners - for example, the artsy type who listens to complicated music, and the serious, intelligent type, who listens to heavy metal.
In a more recent study, musical preference was linked to differences in something called cognitive styles, described in the systemizing-empathizing theory. Inventories based on the theory measure a person's interest in empathy and a person's interest in analyzing and constructing systems such as biological systems, or systems in physics. Typically people with emphasis in systemizing are more interested in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and people with emphasis in empathizing are more interested in the humanities. The theory and suggested implications have been criticized, but nevertheless, the study uncovered interesting connections: Individuals who were prone to higher empathy preferred mellow, low-arousal music such as R&B, soul and soft rock genres, and those who were more prone towards systemizing preferred intense, high-arousal music and complex music like heavy metal.
Although it is easy to recognize for example the “typical heavy-metal listener” from the connections described above, any music listener will probably consider findings like these simplistic. There are many people who enjoy a very wide range of music! Certainly, all of the variance in musical taste cannot be accounted for by personality inventories, just as personalities themselves do not account for all the variance in human behavior. However, studies like the ones pointed above do help in understanding the richness of the musical experience, its multifaceted nature, and its deep connections to other areas of life.
Written by Marko Ahtisaari & Ketki Karanam
Greenberg, D. M., Baron-Cohen, S., Stillwell, D. J., Kosinski, M., & Rentfrow, P. J. (2015). Musical Preferences are Linked to Cognitive Styles. PLoS ONE, 10(7), e0131151. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131151
Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2003). The do re mi!s of everyday life: The structure and personality correlates of music preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1236–