Music and Personality | Correlation or Stereotype?
Jun 27th 2014 Sarah F Miscellaneous

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Metal stereotypes piss me off, they assume you’re an emotionally unstable white male between the ages of 20-26, who either worships satan or is a nazi, comes from middle to low economic social standing, and lives somewhere in the northern hemisphere of the world. All of which I don’t identify with.

Metal Stereotypes

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Although I despise metal stereotypes and musical elitists with the strength of 1000 burning suns, my love for Science surpasses that hate and word on the street was that Science discovered a strong correlation between musical preference and personality type. So, naturally curiosity took over and I had to look up this ‘correlation’ wondering if it was merely misplaced generalization in disguise.

I found two studies, one conducted by the Heriot-Watt University, driven by a man called Professor North and  another slightly more extensive research project conducted at the University of Texas. Both studies were born out of the observation that music had powerful effect on social behavior, which is a legitimate premise.

Professor North poignantly states:

“People often define their sense of identity through their musical taste, wearing particular clothes, going to certain pubs, and using certain types of slang”.

wacken-2011crowd

” See! what did I tell you, look at all that black! ” – Professor North, probably

Which I think rings true for a small portion of passionate music fans, although not all fans feel the need to adapt to social stereotypes; especially fans that identify with and like two unabashedly contradictory genres. Although, it does provide some food for thought. Why do some people enjoy certain types of music and not others? While you can draw parallels to a favorite music genre and a favorite color, people tend to be exceedingly passionate with their music (and many exhibit elitism via their musical choice), which provides an even more substantial basis for drawing correlations between musical preference and personality. Especially because of the amount of time and effort people devote to listening/creating/reviewing/appreciating music.

The researchers conducted their experiment by first separating genres into over arching categories and then asking people to rate them by preference, after which everyone participating was given a standardized personality test. Musical preference was made easier to analyze by lumping sixteen different genres into four categories.

Musical Category

In order to assess personality, researchers adapted the ‘Big Five’ personality schema. The Big Five are as follows: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. They also measured other characteristics like wealth and attractiveness,  which doesn’t have anything to do with personality merely demographics, yet I found interesting all the same.

The results of their experiments were intriguing. To the researchers surprise, despite the fact that ‘Intense and Rebellious’ music scored really high for “emphasizes negative emotions” on the researchers analysis of the musical category, individuals who enjoy that kind of music did not appear to display signs of neuroticism or disagreeableness. Which I guess makes sense looking in on the Metal/Rock music scene, but for people who consider themselves fans its hardly a revelation.

Personality traits

In a nutshell, they concluded that people who like Rock, Metal and Alternative music tend to be curious about different things, enjoy taking risks, are physically active, intelligent and are politically liberal. They also found out that they tend to be on the lower end of the economic scale, as well as on average less attractive (Are they serious? Come On!!) and tend to have lower self esteem, despite having higher than average self perceived intelligence.

More results

The biggest thing the researchers concluded from their experiment was that people enjoy music that has the same level of complexity as their cognitive ability. In other words the optimal level of musical simulation is directly proportional to intelligence levels, smarter people enjoy more complex music.

But the questions that remain are: Does personality influence your musical preference, or does your musical preference have an impact on your personality? And do people simply listen to some kinds of music to make self-directed identity claims? For example, listening to classical music in order to appear more sophisticated?

I don’t think anyone should deny that there’s a complex relationship between music and personality..one that seems to have statistical consistency. However, should the research make me re-think my intense hate of stereotypes? No. But music is an activity that consumes so much time and resources and is a key component of so many social situations, that the type of music you listen to is bound to speak volumes about who you are, and what your mentality is like.

What do you think? Does music choice dictate personality? Or did the scientists who conducted the experiment fall victim to over generalization?

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  • Rami

    Great article ! Music choice develops with personality and the reverse effect is also valid.