Music Taste Linked to Brain Type

A new test matches up a person’s personality traits of empathy and systemizing with the music that they like to listen to.
23 July 2015


this is a cartoon of a human brain, made from musical notation


How does the way you think, influence the music you choose to listen to? Scientists at Cambridge University have developed a test that matches up a person's personality traits including how empathic they are, and how systematically they think, with the music most likely to resonate with them.

David Greenberg and his team, writing in the journal PLOS ONE, wanted to look beyond the usual personality traits that are used for identifiying musical preferences, and investigate whether the way a person thinks is a better predictor of their taste in music.

Candidates first took a questionnaire that looked to identify their brain type - either as an empathiser - someone that feels very strong emotions and is able to relate to other peoples emotions - or a systemiser - someone who thinks very logically and spots patterns in the world.

The score from each test was then compared to the baseline for an average person of their gender and their brain type assigned. A high score on the systemiser quotient, coupled with a low score on the empathiser scale, would represent a "type S" brain; the opposite would be type E. The third brain type, B (balanced) occurs when their is no clear preference for either a systemiser or an empathiser.

Fifty musical excerpts, each around 30 seconds in length, were then played to the candidates and they indicated their preference for each piece of music on a scale from 1 to 9. This was one of the novel methods used in the study, rather than having candidates rank a list of artists or genres.

"The problem with genres is that they're so vast. If you take the rock genre in general you have Metallica to Jeff Buckley, so we thought a more accurate way of doing it would just be to administer pieces of music," explains Greenberg.

The results from the study were very consistent, with a clear difference between the musical tastes of an empathiser and those of a systemiser.

"In general empathizers like more mellow music, from genres such as R&B, adult contemporary and soft rock," Greenberg says. "Systemizers like more intense music from the punk and heavy metal genres."

They also looked at musical tastes in greater detail, identifying the specific features of the music that the participants preferred. Interestingly, empathisers, they found, like "low energy qualities" in their music: romance, emotional depth, poetic and negative emotions, such as depression. Systemizers, on the other hand, prefer much more intense and strong music that's thrilling, fast and contains positive emotions, such as joy.

When comparing the predictions of music taste from their study, with those from other personality based studies, the team found that a person's brain type, or the way that they think, is actually a better predictor of music tastes, in particular for empathisers. This could mean improved musical reccomendations for users of platforms such as Youtube or iTunes.

Alongside this, Greenberg believes that this research could also help to improve musical therapy techniques. "We could use these results as a way of teaching children emotional recognition through music".

You can listen to my interview with David and hear me take the test on the link below.


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