Are our musical preferences shaped in part by our personalities?


Written by: Mandy Stefanakis

“David Greenberg and colleagues looked at the features of music and found correlations between people’s personalities and the music they liked. But is it that simple?”

As someone very fond of composing, I’m interested in whether all the influences for the particular musical identity we develop are determined by our experiences of other musics, our ethnicity, where we live, when we live, basically, our context, or if there are some components in our choices of sounds and their combination that are determined by the nature of who we are. This, of course, is shaped by our context, our experiences, but in turn, we make choices in our perceptions of the world and formulate our ideas based on the stuff we came into the world with.

There is a great deal of research in this area, but like the very nature of music itself, it’s hard to pin down. Many researchers have attempted to match up personality ‘types’. There’s a five-point personality ‘scale’ (of course) that is widely used by psychologists in mapping personality traits. These traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism which sounds a little creepy, but aspects of it are not. One sometimes wonders if the desire for a nifty acronym (in this case OCEAN) is the driving force behind the categorisation of stuff, but for the moment, let’s suspend that cynicism. This five-point scale has been used with the categorisation of genres and as one would expect it is problematic in that many musics are hard to classify in this way. For example, in some such tests, Christian musical genres end up with classical music and jazz. As we know, Christian music embraces everything from gospel and soul to Gregorian chant. Classical music embraces everything from Bach to Cage and jazz, Davis to New Orleans trad..

David Greenberg and colleagues have taken a different approach. They look at the actual features of music which they have categorised into three basic areas – ‘arousal’, the energy level of the music, ‘valence’, the mood of the music and ‘depth’, the level of sophistication of a piece of music and its emotional depth. (Methinks they might work on that last one!) The researchers found correlations between people’s personalities and the music they liked, suggesting, as have other studies, that sounds, musical sounds, impact us in various ways that we may ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ based not only on external factors, for example who else in our ‘group’ likes it.

Previous research by Greenberg in this area has looked at the features of music and related them to an empathy scale, perhaps because one of his colleagues on the project was Simon Baron-Cohen who is interested in how people ‘sit’ on a spectrum from highly empathetic (EQ) to highly systemizing (SQ). And to add to the acronyms again, the musical attributes here are termed the MUSIC model: M for mellow (romantic, sad, slow, quiet), U for unpretentious (uncomplicated relaxing, unaggressive, soft), S for sophisticated (inspiring, intelligent, complex and dynamic), I for intense (distorted, loud, agro aggressive, romantic) and Contemporary (percussive, electronic, not sad) – they mention rap and electronica here and now I’m confused.

Anyhow, although the categories seem contrived in some ways, the tests involved are rather interesting and you can still access these tests referenced below at the Musical Universe. Looking at photos of eyes and judging the emotions in them measure one’s level of empathy for example. But there is also much music to listen to, and no, you really don’t need to give me any more examples of country singers invoking stories of love lost. I didn’t like the first one and haven’t changed my mind!

What interests me about empathy is beyond music. Many of the world’s current leaders would say, ‘What’s empathy?’ and that’s a problem, particularly when large enough cohorts actually think they are wondrous people who will make critically sound judgements in order to look after us and our planet.

And of course, music, like our choices of leaders, is a lot more complex than a personality test. I remember asking students if they had been involved in any experiences where a piece of music brought back a powerful memory and one girl related that she was listening to one of her favourite songs when she was involved in a car crash. The music kind of lost its allure at that point!


Greenberg, D., Baron-Cohen, S., Stillwell, D., Kosinski, M., Rentfro, J. (2015). Music Preferences are linked to Cognitive Styles. PLoS ONE, 10 (7), 1 – 22. doi:0.1371/journal.pone.0131151

Greenberg, D. (2016, August 5th) Musical Genres are Out of Date – But This New System Explains Why You Might Like Jazz and Hip-Hop. The Conversation. Retrieved from

The Personality Quizzes


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