Thinking style and musical taste

Even the best of friends can disagree heatedly over music. What one person finds wonderful and engaging is ear-excrement to another. Lots of research has gone on into how personality determines musical preference and now a new study has shown that the way you think can also influence what you enjoy coming through your earphones or on the car music system.

Previous research in this area has shown that people who are open to new experiences tend to prefer blues, jazz, classical, and folk music while people who are extraverted and agreeable prefer pop, soundtrack, religious, soul, funk, electronic, and dance genres. In this new study however the researchers were looking at thinking styles as opposed to personality influences on musical preferences.

The researchers gave questionnaires to establish thinking style to more than 4,000 subjects. Thinking styles were classed as empathic (an ability to recognise and react to the thoughts and feelings of others) or systemising (an interest in understand the rules that govern things such as the weather, music, or engines). Later the subjects were asked to listen to and rate 50 pieces of music drawn from 26 genres.

The results showed that people who scored high on empathy tended to prefer mellow music (from R&B, soft rock, and adult contemporary genres), unpretentious music (from country, folk, and singer/songwriter genres), and contemporary music (from electronica, Latin, acid jazz, and Euro pop). Empathic thinkers disliked punk and heavy metal.

Systemisers however, preferred intense music but disliked mellow and unpretentious styles.

The results were even consistent within categories with empathisers liking mellow unpretentious jazz while systemisers liked intense, sophisticated (avant-garde) jazz.

Going deeper the researchers found that those with an empathic thinking style preferred music that had low energy, negative emotions, and emotional depth. Systemisers however preferred music that was high energy, full of positive emotions, and featuring a high degree of cerebral complexity.

Based on their findings, the following are songs that the researchers believe are likely to be liked by empathisers, Hallelujah (Jeff Buckley), Come away with me (Norah Jones), All of me (Billie Holliday), and Crazy little thing called love (Queen). Systemisers will like Concerto in C ( Antonio Vivaldi), Etude Opus 65 No 3 (Alexander Scriabin), God save the Queen (The Sex Pistols), and Enter the Sandman (Metallica).

The purpose of research like this is not merely to fuel the debates over jazz versus soft rock or Norah Jones versus Metallica. It is in fact the kind of information that music providers, such as Spotify or iTunes, will put into algorithms to choose music that you may want listen to. So it won’t be that long until part of signing up to anything is a mandatory personality/cognitive process questionnaire…or, are we already there?

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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