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Musical Preferences Can Indicate Cognitive Style

Musical Preferences Can Indicate Cognitive Style

Interesting new research suggests a person’s thinking style is a predictor of their taste in music.

Psychologists from the University of Cambridge discovered a person’s cognitive approach — be it an empathizer who likes to focus on and respond to the emotions of others, or a systemizer who likes to analyze rules and patterns in the world — appears to influence the type of music a person enjoys.

The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

Little is known about what determines our taste in music. Experts have debated over the past decade on whether musical preferences reflect explicit characteristics such as age and personality.

For example, people who are open to new experiences tend to prefer music from the blues, jazz, classical, and folk genres, and people who are extraverted and agreeable tend to prefer music from the pop, soundtrack, religious, soul, funk, electronic, and dance genres.

In the current study, a team of scientists, led by Ph.D. student David Greenberg, investigated how cognitive style influences our musical choices.

This is measured by looking at whether an individual scores highly on empathy (our ability to recognize and react to the thoughts and feelings of others) or on systemizing (our interest in understanding the rules underpinning systems such as the weather, music, or car engines) or whether we have a balance of both.

“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 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.”

The researchers conducted multiple studies with over 4,000 participants, who were recruited mainly through the myPersonality Facebook app. The app asked Facebook users to take a selection of psychology-based questionnaires, the results of which they could place on their profiles for other users to see.

At a later date, they were asked to listen to and rate 50 musical pieces. The researchers used library examples of musical stimuli from 26 genres and subgenres, to minimize the chances that participants would have any personal or cultural association with the piece of music.

Researchers found 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). They disliked intense music, such as punk and heavy metal.

In contrast, people who scored high on systemizing favored intense music, but disliked mellow and unpretentious musical styles.

The results proved consistent even within specified genres: empathizers preferred mellow, unpretentious jazz, while systemizers preferred intense, sophisticated (complex and avant-garde) jazz.

The researchers then looked more in-depth and found those who scored high on empathy preferred music that had low energy (gentle, reflective, sensual, and warm elements), or negative emotions (sad and depressing characteristics), or emotional depth (poetic, relaxing, and thoughtful features).

In contrast, those who scored high on systemizing preferred music that had high energy (strong, tense, and thrilling elements), or positive emotions (animated and fun features), and which also featured a high degree of cerebral depth and complexity.

Greenberg, a jazz saxophonist, says the research could have implications for the music industry. “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. By knowing an individual’s thinking style, such services might in future be able to fine tune their music recommendations to an individual.”

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

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a member of the team, added; “This new study is a fascinating extension to the ’empathizing-systemizing’ theory of psychological individual differences. It took a talented Ph.D. student and musician to even think to pose this question.

“The research may help us understand those at the extremes, such as people with autism, who are strong systemizers.”

Based on their findings, following are songs that the researchers believe are likely to fit particular styles.
High on empathy:

  • Hallelujah — Jeff Buckley
  • Come away with me — Norah Jones
  • All of me — Billie Holliday
  • Crazy little thing called love — Queen

High on systemizing:

  • Concerto in C — Antonio Vivaldi
  • Etude Opus 65 No 3 — Alexander Scriabin
  • God save the Queen — The Sex Pistols
  • Enter Sandman — Metallica

Source: University of Cambridge/EurekAlert

Musical Preferences Can Indicate Cognitive Style

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Musical Preferences Can Indicate Cognitive Style. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 23 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.