Which came first—the music or the melancholy? In the movie High Fidelity, the narrator, Rob, thinks about the countless people out there listening to songs of heartbreak and loneliness. “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” he wonders. Given how certain personality types seem drawn to particular kinds of music, it’s a fair question to ask. For example, I’d probably look and feel out of place at an Insane Clown Posse concert, but plop me down in the middle of a Death Cab for Cutie crowd, and I’d blend right in. Our taste in music can influence everything from the way we act to the way we dress—or is it that the music we choose to listen to reflects our personalities?
Most well-rounded people enjoy a variety of music, their MP3 players a highly individualized assortment of multiple genres. But they also have a particular genre or two that speaks the most to them. And those genres, according to some studies, speak the most about them, too.
Different Musical Tastes, Similar Personality Traits
Think about a time when someone insulted your favorite musician or band. Did it feel like a personal attack? Professor Adrian North, of Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University, believes that’s because we use music as an extension of our personalities. We’re drawn to certain genres because we relate to them in some way. Over the past few years, he’s conducted a worldwide study linking musical taste to personality traits. In an online survey, North asked participants to rate more than one hundred genres and then answer personality-based questions. He’s used the thirty-six thousand–plus responses he’s received so far to form a few hypotheses about fans.
According to the questionnaires, people who like blues, rap, opera, reggae, and classical music all have high self-esteem. Indie and rock/heavy metal fans suffer from low self-esteem and a lack of motivation, but they’re both creative. Country folks are hardworking, and those favoring soul are gentle and outgoing.
North’s findings reveal some truth in stereotypes, such as that dance fans are creative and classical fans are introverts, but they also challenge a few. For instance, rock/heavy metal people are often thought to be rough around the edges, but surveys suggest they’re actually gentler and calmer. There are also quite a few similarities between genres that aren’t thought to mesh well, like rock/heavy metal and reggae. The genre types may vary wildly, but that doesn’t mean their fans can’t find some common ground, at least personality-wise.
Finding Truth in Fan Stereotypes
Peter Rentfrow, an assistant professor at the University of Cambridge, also thinks that personality has much to do with music preferences. In a 2003 study called “The Do Re Mi’s of Everyday Life: The Structure and Personality Correlates of Music Preferences,” he and Sam Gosling, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, came up with four categories for music: Reflexive and Complex (blues/classical/folk/jazz), Energetic and Rhythmic (hip hop/dance), Upbeat and Conventional (religious/country/pop), and Intense and Rebellious (heavy metal/rock/alternative rock). They found that those who fell into one group over another had a few common characteristics.
- Energetic and Rhythmic: confident, liberal-minded, gregarious, athletic, feels attractive
- Upbeat and Conventional: trusting, hardworking, feels attractive, helpful, politically conservative
- Reflexive and Complex: open-minded, politically liberal, creative, intelligent, tolerant, enjoys aesthetic experiences
- Intense and Rebellious: athletic, energetic, adventurous, intelligent, inquisitive
Rentfrow and Gosling have conducted a number of joint studies concerning music and personality. In 2007, they tested whether stereotypes about music genres and fans have any truth to them, the results of which were published in the journal Psychology of Music. First, they asked seventy-four people a series of personality-related questions and afterward told them to list their ten favorite songs. (Volunteers also had a week to change their choices.) Seventy-four CDs of the participants’ top-ten songs were made and distributed to eight people, who were then asked to guess the nature of the volunteers based on their song selections.
Interestingly, the eight observers accurately predicted congeniality, forgiveness, openness to experience, creativity, and emotional balance. They did better than respondents in previous studies in which people used pictures and videos as personality indicators.
Songs That Stand the Test of Time
Since the participants were college students, it’s possible that age makes a difference when it comes to genres predicting personalities. As we age, music tends to define us less, and our tastes vary more. And that probably has much to do with the fact that our personalities change as get older, too. As we develop, our musical tastes evolve along with us. But though we branch out into different musical genres, I think we all have at least one that carries more significance for us than others. It’s the kind of music that we relate the most to, be it through heartfelt lyrics, aggressive tempo, or the soft twang of a single guitar.
Anything we willingly incorporate into our lives could be considered a personality indicator, but most of us hold music a lot closer to our hearts than we do clothes or interior decorations. So think twice before you question or insult others’ taste in music. Chances are, they’ll take it personally—and based on the aforementioned studies’ findings, they might be right.
Updated January 31, 2011