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Your musical tastes reveal how you think: a new study

Jennifer Van Evra

Everybody has different tastes in music — but are your unique tastes linked to the way you think? A new study out of the University of Cambridge says yes.

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study, titled Musical Preferences Are Linked to Cognitive Styles, examines how cognitive styles influence our musical choices, and what the researchers found was that different personality types tend to have distinctly different — and relatively predictable — tastes in music.

For the study, 4,000 participants were given tests to determine whether they were empathizers (people who are likely to recognize and respond to the thoughts and emotions of others) or systemizers (those more interested in the underlying rules and patterns of the world, such as weather systems, music, or car engines), or a combination of both.

The study found that people who score high on empathy prefer mellow music (R&B, soft rock, adult contemporary genres), unpretentious music (country, folk, singer-songwriter), and contemporary music (electronica, Latin, acid jazz, Euro pop). They did not like intense music such as punk and heavy metal.

Systemizers, on the other hand, love intense music, but don't like mellow or unpretentious styles.

The same held true within specific genres: empathizers liked mellow or unpretentious jazz, while systemizers preferred the more complex and avant-garde jazz.

The researchers also found that those who scored high on empathy preferred music with low energy (gentle, reflective, warm, sensual), negative emotions (sad songs) or emotional depth (poetic, thoughtful).

Systemizers, however, preferred music that was high energy (strong, tense, thrilling), and was associated with positive emotions (animated and fun). They also preferred music that was more cerebral and complex.

“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,” said researcher David Greenberg. “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.”

Greenberg, a jazz saxophonist, says the findings could be of great interest to companies that are in the business of predicting people's musical tastes.

“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," he says. "By knowing an individual’s thinking style, such services might in future be able to fine tune their music recommendations to an individual.”

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

So what are the kinds of songs that the two groups tend toward? Here is a sample:

High on empathy:

Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah"

Norah Jones, "Come Away With Me"

Billie Holliday, "All of Me"

Queen, "Crazy Little Thing Called Love"

High on systemizing:

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in C

Alexander Scriabin, Etude, Op. 65, No. 3

The Sex Pistols, "God Save The Queen"

Metallica, "Enter Sandman"