Why Do Some People Like Music More Than Others?

Even though music exists in all cultures and is present in our daily lives, individuals vary in how important they consider music to be. Taste in music, music listening habits, and the general significance of music in their daily lives differ can differ widely from person to person. Listening preferences are probably the sum of many variables, developing and changing throughout life. Unraveling the different factors that influence preferences is of great interest to the music industry – if you could reliably predict who likes what and why, you could provide more music they like, at the times they want to hear it! Understanding the sources of individual differences related to musical enjoyment more deeply would also help design more effective therapeutic procedures involving music.

A recently published study sought to explore the big questions, specifically, why people listen to music and what types of goals they have for music listening. The study also assessed whether music listening actually helps people attain these goals and how the music they prefer is linked with music listening in the first place.1

Regulating emotions and arousal is a more common goal for music listening than using music as a social tool.

In the study, 121 participants were asked to pay attention to their music listening habits and keep a memo about the situations in which they listened to music for a period of 10 days. At the end of each day, the participants completed a questionnaire about the goals and outcomes of music listening during the day, aided by their memos. The specific goals that the subjects were asked about were self-awareness, social relatedness, arousal and mood regulation, as these are suggested to be the most important reasons that people listen to music based on previous research.2 For each goal, the participants rated how important it was for them, and to what extent music listening helped them to achieve the goal that day, as well as how often they had used music to attain the goal in the past. In order to investigate the link to musical preference, the participants were asked about how much they enjoyed the music they listened to.

According to the results, the main goal for music listening was for arousal and mood regulation, followed by self-awareness, with social interaction coming in last. The participants also reported that the desired effects of music listening were most attainable in terms of arousal and mood regulation – meaning that music listening to influence mood or arousal most reliably resulted in the desired outcome. Also, the more a person was accustomed to using music as a means to an end, the more successful they were in attaining the goal set for music listening. In short, the respondents seemed to be achieving what they desired from music listening, and were better at getting it with more experience.

Practice doesn’t make perfect? Results showed the efficacy of goal-directed music listening is more influenced by musical training than repeated exposure to music

One might expect that the more people use music to attain a certain goal in the past, for example, using music to relax at work for several years, the effectiveness of music helping people reach this goal, and their enjoyment of the music, would also increase. However, according to the results, past experience did not predict the strength of the connection between goal attainment and musical enjoyment. Instead, there was a connection with previous music training of the individual. The researchers suggested that participants who played an instrument were better able to identify which music was useful in the attainment of a goal, therefore explaining the connection.

So what should one listen to, for example, to get in a better mood or to focus better at work? What about the best soundtrack for social connectedness? Did the study reveal any connections between musical genres and the outcomes? Sadly, science has yet to come close to giving us an answer. As the researchers eloquently put it: “There are an infinite number of ways social, cultural, and economic variables can interact and eventually bring an individual in contact with a certain style of music that can eventually prove useful.”

Nonetheless, scientists have found patterns in musical preferences which can be used to make predictions about individual traits, such as personality. Past research has shown links between personality traits and musical preferences for example: people who enjoy and long for novelty or risky experiences are more likely to enjoy so-called “activating music”.3 Or, individuals who are prone to higher empathy prefer mellow, low-arousal music such as R&B, soul and soft rock genres, and those who were more prone towards systemizing preferred intense, highly-arousing, and complex music like heavy metal.

Despite these intriguing results, more research is needed to determine their strength of connections between music preferences and other behaviors and traits. For the most part, the sources of variation in musical preferences are unknown. Music becomes meaningful and useful to people in capricious, unpredictable ways. This richness in experiences and benefit derived from music is something. The Sync Project is currently collecting 1,000,000 songs that are used to attain a certain goal. From such a large set of data, we hope to shed more light on the big question of musical preference and attainment of goals through music listening, ultimately uncovering the various health benefits that people experience. Click here to share your song now: https://go.syncproject.co/

Written by Ketki Karanam


1. Schäfer, T. (2016). The Goals and Effects of Music Listening and Their Relationship to the Strength of Music Preference. PloS one, 11(3), e0151634. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0151634

2. Schäfer T, Sedlmeier P, Städtler C, Huron D. The psychological functions of music listening. Front Psychol. 2013;4: 511. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00511.

3. McNamara, L., & Ballard, M. E. (1999). Resting arousal, sensation seeking, and music preference. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 125(3), 229. http://search.proquest.com/openview/2907889be5976ae59ab61e279ac82fa9/1