What Does Your Music Taste Say About the Way You Think?

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You pop in your headphones, open the music app on your phone, and begin to browse songs. Which one do you pick? A mellow Coldplay tune? A pump-up song by Metallica? Or maybe some classic Beatles? While selecting a song may seem like a menial act, it could actually say a lot about how your mind works.

We all consider our musical taste as an integral part of our identity. Whether we’re into folk or pop — music helps define who we are as individuals. In the past, researchers have theorized that music preference is primarily linked to age and personality. For example, people who are more extraverted go for styles like pop or electronic, while people who are open to new experiences gravitate toward jazz, classical, and folk.

There has been a lot of speculation surrounding the reasons for musical taste, but scientists have never investigated the link between music preference and cognitive function. That is, until last month.

In a study published July 22 in PLOS ONE, researchers from the University of Cambridge explored the connection between thinking style and music taste.

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

In order to complete this unique research, the team of scientists led by PhD student David Greenberg, first classified two types of thinkers: “systemizers” and “empathizers.” Systemizers are classified as individuals who like to analyze rules and patterns, while empathizers focus on and respond to others’ emotions.

The researchers gathered data from 4,000 participants, primarily through the myPersonality Facebook app. The selected subjects were later asked to rate 50 pieces of music, which covered 26 different genres and subgenres.

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Greenberg’s team found that the empathizers tended to prefer more mellow music (R&B, soft rock), unpretentious music (country, folk), and contemporary music (electronica, Latin, acid jazz, and pop). Yet they disliked more intense music (punk, heavy metal). On the other hand, systemizers were drawn to intense music while they disliked mellow and unpretentious genres.

In order to explore another layer of the connection between thinking style and music, the researchers analyzed the specific moods evoked by the music. They found that empathetic individuals liked low energy tunes, and specifically pieces with dark emotions or emotional depth. Contrastingly, the systemizers liked high-energy music and positive emotions.

Now, you’re probably asking yourself, “how accurate could this be if our music preferences change all the time?” But Greenberg is confident in his findings: “Although people’s music choices fluctuates over time, we’ve discovered a person’s empathy levels and thinking style predicts what kind of music they like,” he said. “In fact, their 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.”

In fact, he’s so confident in his findings that he believes the research could be a valuable tool for the music industry in the future.

“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 future be able to fine tune their music recommendations to an individual,” he said.

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