Jeff Buckley or Rage Against The Machine? Your music preferences reveal a lot about how you think.
There is a clear link between people’s cognitive styles and the type and depth of emotion they prefer in music, say researchers.
Their work, published today in PLOS ONE, shows people who are more empathetic — have a greater ability to identify, predict and respond to the emotions of others — are drawn to more mellow, sad, poetic and sensual music, such as R&B, adult contemporary and soft rock.
However people with more analytical tendencies (called ‘systemisers’) go in the opposite direction, seeking punk, heavy metal, avant garde jazz and hard rock.
“Systemising … is this drive to look at patterns and deconstruct and analyse the rules in the world,” says lead author David Greenberg, psychology PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.
“So if you’re looking at a mountain, you’re curious about how the mountain is formed and how it’s developed over a period of time, [while] an empathiser may focus more on the aesthetics of it or the feeling of awe.”
The study emerged from an ongoing effort to understand why people like the music they do; why some people love the music of Joni Mitchell while others can’t stand it.
Previous research has looked at personality traits, and suggested that, for example, extroverts prefer dance or pop music.
But Greenberg says the team thought there must be more to music preference than personality.
Because music is such an emotional medium, the researchers thought it would be relevant whether people were empathisers or systemisers.
“There is not only a range of emotions perceived from music but also a range of emotions that are felt from music, and that’s quite linked to say empathy,” Greenberg says.
“At the same time music is filled with a complex array of patterns and structural elements … and that is closely related to systemising.”
Greenberg and colleagues recruited several thousand individuals through Facebook, and played them to 50 short excerpts of music from 26 different genres and subgenres.
At the same time, the participants filled in a questionnaire to assess their empathy quotient and other information relevant to identifying their cognitive style.
“The original hypothesis that we had was that people who scored high on empathy would be preferring music that would have a greater deal of emotional depth to it, so one example could be Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’,” Greenberg says.
“We thought that systemisers on the other hand may be preferring something that has a greater degree of intellectual complexity, where if you’re listening to the music it’s going to challenge you to have to deconstruct different elements of the song and piece it together.”
And that’s what they found: empathisers preferred music with greater emotional depths and reflection, while systemisers went for music with cerebral depth and complexity.
The researchers also found systemisers preferred music that was strong, tense and thrilling, like heavy metal.
“That surprised me a little bit about how much systemisers were drawn to those aspects,” Greenberg says.
“It may be that, for example, if you think of systemisers, that they’re drawn to this music that has a high degree of arousal.”
The preference pattern of both emphathisers and systemisers was evident not just across genres, but even within genres, such as jazz or rock.
The findings may have use in helping people on the autism spectrum, who tend to rate highly in systemising cognitive styles.
“We’ve also been collecting a lot of open-ended responses from roughly 400 individuals with autism explaining why they like music that they do and their experiences with it, which is interesting in terms of how music might be used perhaps in therapy for people with autism,” Greenberg says.