'Cause we all have wings But some of us don't know why
- INXS, Never Take Never Tear Us Apart
The average American listens to music more than 5 hours per day. There are hundreds of magazines, thousands of blogs, pages in nearly every daily newspaper, and dozens of television shows devoted to music. With this in mind, I am amazed at the small number of research studies on what leads to our musical preferences and how they influence our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Yes, I am fully aware of the large body of research on music therapy in adults and youth; I am thinking of a basic understanding of musical preferences and how people take advantage of this powerful effect on our mood. You would think there would be more research because as a leisure activity, people rate listening to music as more important (78 on a 100-point scale) than movies (60), books and magazines (55), TV (50), clothes (62) and food preferences (65). In a dream world, psychologists spent more time studying what people cared about.....
We know that there are a small number of broad personality traits that can describe different types of people. You might be familiar with the OCEAN acronym for the Big Five personality traits of Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism - a constellation that is similar in over 40 languages and cultures. Can our musical tastes be similarly organized into a few, simple dimensions that reveal information about our preferences? Upon studying over 5,000 adults, researchers have uncovered Five Big musical preferences:
1. Sophisticated (avant-garde classical anyone?) - these sounds tend to be instrumental, complex, inspiring, intelligent, and if you were to think of genres the best match is classical and marching band.
2. Unpretentious (some nice, simple, bluegrass or country rock?) - these sounds are a bit relaxing, romantic, and even sad, best characterized by new or mainstream country.
3. Intense (shredded vocal chords or the most violent guitarist of all time?) - this is the only category where distorted, electric, fast, loud, aggressive sounds are appreciated. Think punk rock and heavy metal.
5. Contemporary (quite a challenge to find a video without profanity or sexual images) - Electric sounds dominate a wide variety of genres from rap to electronica.
What are the personality attributes of people with these different preferences. If you are a fan of Sophisticated or Intense music, you tend to be very high on Openness to Experience (i.e., curious, creative, welcoming of new perspectives) and politically liberal; the difference is that people who prefer Sophisticated music tend to be docile in social interactions whereas people that prefer Intense music tend to be dominant with an impulsive communication style (what we might call "blirtatiousness"); of all the musical preferences, those who like Intense music tend to be the least Conscientious (i.e., spontaneous, disorganized, lacking in self-restraint). If you are into Unpretentious music, you are extremely kind and agreeable (among other interpersonal virtues) and conscientious (i.e., self-disciplined), and show a slight uptick in Extraversion and politically conservative views, but are a bit close-minded (i.e., incurious, less creative, disinterest in exploring feelings, values, and dreams). If you are into Contemporary music, you show a slight uptick in Extraversion and Agreeableness, politically liberal views, blirtatiousness, but tend to be inconspicuous in social situations. If you are into Mellow music, you are probably high on Openness to Experience.
When people think of musical choices, the first thing that comes to mind is emotions. Thus, you might be surprised to know that a person's musical preference has no clear link to emotional stability, self-esteem, anxiety, or depressive symptoms. But hold this loosely because in the past, researchers wanted to know whether people who experience frequent, intense negative emotions show particular musical tastes. How you tend to feel on a regular basis is probably less important than how you feel or want to feel on a given day. What we know is that some people have a firm grasp on how music can influence their mood and strategically wield music like a weapon to feel angry, sad, or calm in an upcoming situation. For instance, listening to Intense, violent music works great before lifting weights, entering the octagon for mixed-martial arts, or taking part in a confrontation (the werewolf bar mitzvah song just doesn't cut it). When you are intelligent about music, you gain a simple toolbox to ease the rough, uncertain terrain of other people.
Music is important to people.
For most of us, there is no activity that occupies a greater proportion of waking hours.
As a tool to alter our mood, almost nothing (legal) works as fast.
It's time to better understand our musical preferences, how our identity has been shaped by music, and how our everyday life can be enhanced by the right music at the right dose in the right situation. If music is going to be the backdrop of our existence, let's be intentional and enjoy the moment and savor it again at a later date.
For a great review of the science:
Rentfrow, P. J. (2012). The role of music in everyday life: Current directions in the social psychology of music. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(5), 402-416.