The American Psychological Association has published a paper that seems to suggest that there are universal patterns in musical preferences.
The study of preferential reactions to Western music used data from more than 350,000 people in 53 countries spanning six continents and found links between musical preferences and personality which are similar worldwide. This suggests that music could play a greater role in joining people and surmounting social division, as well as offering currently untapped therapeutic benefits.
Dr David Greenberg – an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cambridge and a Postdoctoral Scholar at Bar-Ilan University – who led the research says,
We were surprised at just how much these patterns between music and personality replicated across the globe. People may be divided by geography, language and culture, but if an introvert in one part of the world likes the same music as introverts elsewhere, that suggests that music could be a very powerful bridge. Music helps people to understand one another and find common ground.
The researchers concentrated on Western music because it is listened to globally. They used the MUSIC model, which identifies five key musical styles:
Mellow (featuring romantic, slow, and quiet attributes as heard in soft rock, R&B, and adult contemporary genres),
Unpretentious (uncomplicated, relaxing, and unaggressive attributes as heard in country genres),
Sophisticated (inspiring, complex, and dynamic features as heard in classical, operatic, avant-garde, and traditional jazz genres),
Intense (distorted, loud, and aggressive attributes as heard in classic rock, punk, heavy metal, and power pop genres), and
Contemporary (rhythmic, upbeat, and electronic attributes as heard in the rap, electronica, Latin, and Euro-pop genres).
Greenberg, who also performs as a professional saxophonist, said,
We thought that neuroticism would have likely gone one of two ways, either preferring sad music to express their loneliness or preferring upbeat music to shift their mood. Actually, on average, they seem to prefer more intense musical styles, which perhaps reflects inner angst and frustration.
That was surprising, but people use music in different ways – some might use it for catharsis, others to change their mood. So there may be subgroups who score high on neuroticism who listen to mellow music for one reason and another subgroup that is more frustrated and perhaps prefers intense music to let off steam. We’ll be looking into that in more detail.
Greenberg himself has a varied playlist that is typical of people who score high on openness.
I’ve always loved jazz and now I’m also really into the music of different world religions, which makes perfect sense based on my personality traits.
The researchers found global correlations between extraversion and contemporary music; between conscientiousness and unpretentious music; between agreeableness and mellow and unpretentious music; and between openness and mellow, contemporary, intense and sophisticated music.
They found that extraversion, which is defined by excitement-seeking, sociability, and positive emotions, is associated with contemporary music that is upbeat, positive, and danceable. Similarly, they found that conscientiousness (associated with order and obedience) conflicted with intense musical styles, which are characterised by aggressive and rebellious themes.
If people who score high for neuroticism, for example, are being fed more intense music and they’re already feeling stressed and frustrated, is that helping with their anxiety or is it just reinforcing and perpetuating? These are the questions we now need to answer.
He thinks that streaming data with EEG hyperscanning technologies could establish a more nuanced understanding of the biological and cultural factors that make up our musical preferences and responses. Future research that tests the links between music and personality in real-world settings could show how music can be a bridge between people from diverse cultures around the globe.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.