The Psychology of Musical Preferences. What do your musical preferences say about your personality?

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Psychology Today: Here to Help

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D. writes as follows:

Would you ever go out with someone who listens to Justin Bieber? Unfortunately, I do.

My girlfriend and I have many common interests, but when it comes to music her love of mainstream pop is just hard for me to digest. So, what do we know about the psychology of musical preferences?

There are two radically opposed views about this: One is that song preferences are completely random (this includes the idea that arbitrary subjective experiences can make you like or dislike the same song); the other, that our musical choices reflect important aspects of our personality. As you may have guessed, I agree with the latter - then again they call me Mr Personality.

How is it then that our musical preferences come to reveal our inner thoughts and feelings? The answer is really quite simple, namely that music fulfils three important psychological functions. Indeed, scientific research shows that people listen to music in order to: (a) improve their performance on certain tasks (music helps us combat boredom and achieve our optimal levels of attention while driving, studying or working); (b) stimulate their intellectual curiosity (by concentrating and analysing the music we hear); and, most importantly (c) manipulate or influence their own emotional states with the goal of achieving a desired mood state, e.g., happiness, excitement, and sadness.

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  • Ray Purchase

    Deep down, I think find it impossible to disentangle my actual love for the music from my love of ‘what it stands for’. I don’t mean that this has anything to do with who the performer is – I could easily love something by Justin Bieber if it was a great piece of music (for example, I have no trouble in loving Crazy Horses by the Osmonds – perhaps not every single element of it). But the music itself usually says something about how, why, where and when it was created and can trigger reactions in me that are related to nostalgia, or admiration of a certain lifestyle etc. Do I love the music of Vaughan Williams because it reminds me of the old black and white films that were on TV in the afternoons of my blissful childhood in the 1960s and 70s, rather than for the music itself? Do I therefore have a liking for music based on pentatonic scales because Vaughan Williams used them all the time? Ditto the orchestration ‘with gaps in it’ that he used to do, which I hear in the Beatles, Kinks, Who and Hendrix but not, say, Abba? Is this why I’m not particularly concerned with lyrics? Could I possibly learn to love a particular type of music without associating it with ‘lifestyle’ influences to some extent? There are people who claim to love classical music, the implication being that they can love equally Mozart *and* Stravinsky. I find it hard to believe, and find myself wondering whether their relationship with music is more akin to trainspotting. Or is their love for music completely out of this world compared to mine, and they experience synaesthetic fireworks going off in their heads as soon as they hear a violin or a pipe organ – but strangely not when they hear a Hammond organ. There are others who claim to love Stockhausen. How? Why? Again, I can’t help but think that they don’t actually love music at all, but are in fact tone deaf without realising it, and that while Stockhausen sounds just the same as Lady Gaga to them, they earn more intellectual brownie points by knowing about Stockhausen. My father probably thinks the same thing about my liking for Benjamin Britten.

  • The Editor

    Neil here Ray. We are touched that you should want to comment like this. Your observations strike a chord; a resonance if you prefer. A fine piece of writing. You have an engaging writing style that is both informative and enjoyable. I for one feel just a little bit humbled because of this – and there’s nothing wrong with that is there? Regards from ‘the team’

    • Ray Purchase

      Neil, thanks for the lovely comment, and for a great web site, with its constant stream of fascinating and thought-provoking articles.

      Just thinking about the subject of music and psychology some more, I can remember once buying a CD single from an artist whose work I wouldn’t naturally have been drawn to, but which turned out (unbeknownst to me) to be a Paul McCartney cover. It was Maybe I’m Amazed by Carleen Anderson. I saw the video on TV and was stunned by the song, thinking how marvellous it was that there were people around who could still write something like that. I knew the Beatles’ work, but not that song by Paul McCartney.

      I think I’m saying that in my case, it’s probably not the particular style and instrumentation that attracts me to a song, but the basic chord progressions etc. But why it’s those particular chord progressions I don’t know.

      There’s a great group called The Cardiacs, and their singer is quoted thus:

      “The chords and tunes we use sound pretty to us, certain key changes make your tummy go funny, the ones we use make our tummies go funny.”

      There are five albums-worth of Beatles covers in The Minnesota Beatle Project, and they all ‘survive’ being played in hugely different styles from the Beatles’ originals.