How Scientists Know What Music You Like

Cognitive style is a major predictor of musical taste
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 23, 2015 2:30 PM CDT
How Scientists Know What Music You Like
In this file photo, a man tests out Beats headphones at Super Target in Dallas.   (AP Photo/Dallas Morning News, Stan Olszewski)

Are you an empathizer, preferring to focus on the emotions of those around you, or a systemizer, interested in the patterns and rules of the world? How you answer that question predicts what style of music you like, report University of Cambridge psychologists in the journal PLoS ONE. In fact, people's cognitive styles "can be a better predictor of what music they like than their personality"—such as how neurotic or conscientious they are—the study's lead author, a trained jazz saxophonist, tells Popular Science. To study this, the researchers had more than 4,000 volunteers complete the Empathy Quotient and NEO Personality Inventory-Revised and listen to and rate 50 music excerpts from a library of 26 sub-genres that aimed to mitigate cultural or personal ties to certain songs.

They then calculated each person’s scores across five "MUSIC" dimensions—mellow, unpretentious, sophisticated, intense, and contemporary—and found that cognitive style influences the very genres of music people like (empathizers drift toward "mellow" and "unpretentious" music like soft rock and blue grass, while systemizers prefer "intense" music like punk rock and heavy metal). Even within genres they found differences. Those who scored high as empathizers drift toward music that has low energy or great emotional depth, while the systemizers tend toward music that is high energy or positive. Top songs among empathizers? Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" and Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me." The systemizers far prefer Vivaldi's "Concerto in C" and Metallica's "Enter the Sandman." (Check out how '80s metalheads turned out.)

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