How are music and personality linked?

21 August 2018

Interview with 

Dr David Greenberg, Cambridge University and City University of New York

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Could your personality influence the kind of music you listen to? Music psychologist David Greenberg has been gathering data from people all over the world to learn more about the relationship between music and personality, and Georgia Mills spoke to him to find out more...

David - What we found is that excitement seeking extroverts tend to like high arousal music so that means high energy music songs like Welcome to the Jungle or Thunderstruck by AC/DC.

On the other hand we found that individuals who who were high in openness to experience like more complex music, avant garde classical music to jazz, to opera, to world music. And they are preferring these qualities in music that are much more thoughtful and sophisticated. What’s interesting is if you look at it: let’s just take the example of openness to experience and jazz music. People with openness to experiences they are kind of seeking new things, and if they go on vacation they’re typically going to want to pick a new vacation spot each year. And with jazz music it’s so unpredictable that the very basic concept is improvisation and so there’s constantly something new moment to moment. And some music like that can be really appealing for someone who’s open to new experiences and seeking these new ideas and new aesthetics out.

Some people have a range of musical preferences and so if you look at their playlists there’s a range of music from rock, to jazz, to hip hop, to alternative, and it’s a bunch and they may switch day by day in what type of music they’re listening too. In another study we had found that people again who are high in openness to experience their record collections and their preferences are much more diverse than those who are lower in openness to experience.

There is another study that we had published which was looking at different cognitive styles. So we were looking at people who were high on empathy compared to systemisers who tend to analyse systems. What we found was that empathisers were preferring music that was more mellow, that had lower energy, also had negative emotions, and music that also had emotional depth. Wherease people high in systemising were preferring music that had high energy, positive emotions, and that also had intellectual depth.

So an empathiser might really like Nora Jones’ “Come Away with Me”, or Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah”. Systemisers were preferring more heavy metal and punk music, but at the same time what was interesting was we found that there were systemisers that were preferring music from the avant garde classical genres. And so there’s something about the complexity and almost the puzzle-like nature of that type of music and it needed to be deconstructed that was appealing to systemisers.

Georgia - Do many people listen to music and say ah yes, that’s a clever note change or  - I don’t not much about music - or is it sort of happening unconsciously?

David - It depends upon the individual and that has to do with the type of musical engagement that people engage in. So there are individuals who look at music more intellectually and they are picking out the specific notes, thinking about the exact qualities especially if they’re a musician and have musical training they could say this is a F minor 7 chord going to a B flat 7 chord. Whereas others they’re just listening and they’re focused more on the energy of the music or maybe they’re focusing more on how it’s making their body move. And this also depends upon the personality of the individual and it will inform how they’re actually engaging and stepping into their musical process.

Georgia - Is there any evidence that listening to different types of music could actually influence what you’re like as a person?

David - That’s a great question. And it’s a very difficult one to answer so scientifically. Right now we’re doing studies that are looking at that question. And we’re trying to see if we were to play a piece of music - let’s say Adele’s “Hello”, and then play somebody else maybe Rage Against the Machine, how will that actually affect the listener and will it prime certain personality traits. If we were to play Joni Mitchell's “Blue”, would that make somebody more empathic than before when they listened to the song. And then another question is how long will that change last.

Georgia - If your personality says what kind of music you’re likely to listen to, how about musicians, does their personality influence the kind of music they make?

David - The way that I started my interest in this was that my saxophone teacher, as I was growing up, I noticed he had different playing styles and different personalities. So one who is much more emotional he would often, as a personality, he would play more emotionally. One who is much more intellectual will play a little bit more intellectually.

If music is self-expression then scientifically we could, potentially, show the different ways in which people are expressing their personality in theirself through music. And we’re looking at not only at our jazz musicians on average; do they have a certain personality profile compared to classical musicians? But we’re also looking to exact instrumentalists. So drummers; do they have certain personalities compared to vocalist, compared to pianists, compared to say brass players?

This is going to be important on several levels, not only just how music is performing self-expression but when we think about how we first start to play an instrument, those of us who are musicians. Many times it’s a guessing game. Parents will want or encourage their children to play an instrument or the child will have an eagerness to want to start to learn. But the question is well, what type of instrument to play. If you had a 7 year old you’re not going to give them an instrument to play that is, you know, huge. You might start them off with something that’s smaller that they can hold or they may start them out on the piano.

But what the research that we’re doing now on instrumentalists and personality, what that may eventually inform is to say “Okay, well you have an 8 year old. Let’s look at their personality profile”, and we can predict which type of instrument and even what type of musical style they might not only be most successful in, but that they’ll most enjoy.

Georgia - Has your research given any clues as to what people who play the ukulele are like?

David - Not, not yet...

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