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Neuropsych

Here’s what your music preferences reveal about your personality

Musical preferences are correlated with personality traits. This connection exists across cultures and continents.
music personality
Credit: Syda Productions / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Research has shown correlations between an individual's music preference and their personality traits.
  • New data shows that these relationships exist across cultures. 
  • In other words, an introvert in Europe and an introvert in Asia are likely to enjoy similar music.

Every December since 2016, Spotify runs a hugely popular campaign where users get stats on which musicians and genres they listened to the most. The virality of the campaign lies in the fact that people think that the kind of music they listen to says something about them. Research linking personality types to music preferences suggests that they are right.

Previous studies have hinted at a biological basis for music preferences. Hormones and environment shape the music someone likes. Scientists also have previously explored the relationships between particular music preferences and personality traits. Now, a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looks at these relationships on a cross-cultural scale.

Researchers from Cambridge University and Bar-Ilan University reported that the correlations between personality types and musical genres are largely the same for people worldwide. What sounds pleasing to an introvert in Europe is also likely to make an Asian introvert groove.

The experiment

The researchers used a widely used framework for studying music preferences. Aptly named MUSIC, it boxes music genres into five different kinds — mellow, unpretentious, sophisticated, intense, and contemporary. While mellow features genres like soft rock and R&B, unpretentious includes country music; sophisticated, intense, and contemporary include jazz, rock, and rap music, respectively, among many others. 

Personality types were also grouped into five types according to a popular model in psychology research: OCEAN. The five types are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. As the names suggest, people with these personalities are likely to be inventive, diligent, outgoing, friendly, and nervous, respectively.

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The researchers had some hypotheses for the pairwise interactions between personality type and music preference. For example, since openness is marked by a desire for new experiences, people with this personality type should be more likely to enjoy sophisticated music. Similarly, extroverts are likely to have fun listening to unpretentious tunes.

To determine if their hypotheses were correct and were applicable across the whole world, the researchers conducted two independent studies to assess musical preference. The first study analyzed data on nearly 285,000 individuals from across 53 countries. The data was collected from an online quiz in which participants rated their preference for different genres in exchange for feedback about their personalities. (Try it here.) 

The second study used data from another website where the participants filled out a questionnaire and rated audio clips from different genres. (Try it here.) The clips were sampled in a manner that lowered the chance that the participants had any prior experience with them, thereby eliminating bias. Data was collected on over 71,000 participants from 36 countries.

Music preference and personality

The authors found several interesting correlations. For instance, a listener of mellow music genres is more likely to be a woman, whereas a listener of intense music more likely to be a man. While the preference for mellow music among women was true in all countries studied, preference for intense music among men was split. Men from the Western hemisphere are more likely to enjoy intense music, whereas those from the Eastern hemisphere, with the exception of Australia, dislike it.

Among older people, few have any tolerance for intense music, preferring to listen to mellow, unpretentious, or sophisticated genres instead. An old person’s music preferences are similar to those of Asian people of all ages. Black and Latino people gravitated toward contemporary music. 

The researchers also examined correlations between musical preferences and personality types both within and between countries. They noticed that the strength of correlations are closer for countries that are geographically adjacent. The only cluster of like-minded music fans that consisted of distant countries included Brazil, Argentina, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and South Africa. It isn’t clear what unites these countries, but the researchers suggested warm climate as a possible factor.

music personality
Credit: DM Greenberg et al., J Pers Soc Psychol, 2022.

Limitations

While the research aimed to draw universal conclusions, that’s still not quite possible. For example, everyone in the study listened to Western music and knew English. Further, even though the research included poor countries, it is likely that they sampled the relatively rich individuals in those countries, especially because the first study gathered data from 2003-2010 when internet penetration was far lower in many countries.

In spite of these limitations, the research strongly supports previous work that links personality types to music preferences. By proving that this link is conserved across cultures, it adds weight to the notion that our music choices say something about our personality.

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