Musical taste is often identified by preferred genres, but a more accurate way to understand preferences is by musical characteristics, researchers say. One model outlines three dimensions of musical properties: arousal, valence, and depth.
“Arousal is associated with the amount of energy and intensity in the music,” says David M. Greenberg, a researcher at Bar-Ilan University and the University of Cambridge. Punk and heavy metal songs like “White Knuckles” by Five Finger Death Punch were high on arousal, a study by Greenberg and other researchers found.
“Valence is a spectrum,” from negative to positive emotions, he says. Lively rock and pop songs like “Razzle Dazzle” by Bill Haley & His Comets were high on valence.
Depth indicates “both a level of emotional and intellectual complexity,” Greenberg says. “We found that the rapper Pitbull’s music would be low on depth, [and] classical music and jazz music could be high on depth.”
Musical properties also have interesting relationships with each other. “High depth is often correlated with lower valence, so sadness in the music also evokes a depth in it,” he says.
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We prefer music from artists whose personalities we identify with. “When people listen to music, they’re driven by how similar the artist is to themselves,” says Greenberg.
In his 2021 study, participants rated artists’ personality traits using the Big 5 model: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN). To the respondents, David Bowie showed high openness and neuroticism; while Marvin Gaye exhibited high Agreeableness.
“The struggle between [personality of the] the listener and the artist were predictive of the musical preferences of the artist beyond just the characteristics of the music,” says Greenberg.
Personality traits can predict people’s taste in music, researchers say. In a 2022 study, Greenberg and his colleagues found that despite sociocultural differences, participants around the world showed personality traits that were consistently correlated with their preference for certain genres of Western music. For example, extraversion was associated with a preference for upbeat contemporary music, and openness was associated with a preference for sophisticated or cerebral styles.
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Our cognitive styles and how we think can also predict the types of music we like. A 2015 study by Greenberg and his colleagues distinguishes between systemizers and empathizers—people who understand the world through thoughts and feelings versus people who are interested in rules and systems. “The empathetic tends to prefer sadness in music [systemizers] prefer more intensity in music,” Greenberg said. “A lot of IT [and] data science professionals [are] high on systematization and also prefers really intense music.”
Furthermore, both empathizers and systemizers listen to music with high depth, but empathizers prefer attributes representing emotional depth and systemizers prefer attributes representing intellectual depth and technical complexity.
While personality may be a determining factor in our musical preferences, another may be context. Minsu Park and his colleagues identified temporal patterns in listening behavior—people tend to listen to relaxing music in the evening and energetic music during the day. “This fluctuation is almost identical regardless of your cultural location and other demographic information,” said Park, assistant professor of social research and public policy at New York University Abu Dhabi.
However, there is a fundamental difference between people from different cultures. In Latin America, people tend to listen to “more arousing music compared to other people in other regions” and in Asia they tend to listen to “more relaxing music [than] people in other regions,” says Park.
Age and gender are also associated with certain types of music. Younger people tend to like intense music, and older people tend to dislike it, Greenberg’s research shows. Listeners to soft music are more likely to be female, and listeners to intense music are more likely to be male and from the Western Hemisphere.
There are also age trends in how people engage with music.
A 2013 study examining data from two surveys of more than a quarter of a million people found that “Young people listen to music significantly more often than middle-aged adults, and young people listen to music in a wide variety of contexts, whereas adults listen to music. listening to music primarily in private contexts.”
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Personality can affect our taste in music, but it is important to note that changes in music taste do not indicate a change in personality. Even if we change what we listen to, we remain implicitly the same people.
“An introvert may change over time…but ultimately their core [and] the basis will be introversion,” says Greenberg.
Greenberg created a 35-question quiz that provides insight into personality and musical preferences. To take the test, visit this page.