Scenario: Upon finally obtaining your green Ps, you and three of your besties decide to drive up to the season’s coolest, most alternative music festival (seeing as “freedom lies in being bold pooing in a drop dunny” – Robert Frost). Next to your circular-framed sunnies and a bag of “vitamins” lies the aux cord through which you plan to play a new song you’ve talked up to your mates. Amidst the chorus-induced tears of joy running down your cheeks, you glance around the car and find, much to your dismay, that your mates are disinterested – the anger and confusion invoked by their indifference invites you to question the existence of God himself; why, Lord, is this so?
Music is one of the most prominent features of everyday life – in fact, we’re exposed to music in some way, shape or form for nearly 20 per cent of our waking lives. Subsequently, it’s exceptionally easy for us to identify what sorts of music we do and do not enjoy; mere seconds is all it takes when deciding whether a song on our iPod is worth listening to or skipping.
But why do certain genres of music appeal to some but not others? Why does music elicit different emotions in different people?
Recent psychological studies have shown that these nuances are not random but are, in large part, due to personality. A 2005 study undertaken by PhD student David Greenberg at Cambridge University drew a clear link between one’s cognitive style and the type and depth of emotion in their preferred style of music.
You may not, for the record, terminate your reading here – crashing your 14-year-old sister’s slumber party, abrasively rubbing Emma’s (for lack of a more generic 14-year-old girl’s name) nose in the above paragraph, claiming that, as per your hypothesis, One Direction fans are in fact as sharp as a bowling ball, because “science said so!”; no, keep reading, it’s a little more intricate than that.
The study split people into three distinct thinking types: empathisers – socially apt individuals who can easily recognise and react to the thoughts and feelings of others; systemisers – less social individuals who interact with others based on the notion of how they think they should act and those who are a mixture of the two. Four thousand test subjects (of controlled gender and age) elected themselves to partake in the study survey which required them to agree or disagree to a number of statements, indicative of one of five traits (including neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness); these traits then determined whether the participant thought as an empathiser, systemiser or something of both. In order to rule out predispositions to certain types of music, the participants were then required to rank 50 songs from 26 genres and subgenres.
In comparing the results from the study, a clear pattern emerged across the participant pool. The study found that those participants displaying empathetic-thinking traits tended to prefer mellow music (such as the R&B stylings of TLC), unpretentious music (such as the husky country music of Johnny Cash and contemporary music (such as the funky acid-jazz produced by Jamiroquai). Participants with more systematic-thinking traits, alternatively, enjoyed more intense music (such as the punk rock of the Sex Pistols, or the heavy metal of Metallica). People whose answers didn’t immediately stand out as either empathising or systemising tended to have a mix of both music tastes.
The only thing worse than a friend unimpressed by the song supporting your will to live (a contentious statement – there are, perhaps, worse things – like a hangnail), is when that song emanates from a genre you share a mutual love for. Such hyperbole is intentionally belittling FYI; like claiming that anyone who enjoys eating beef must also crave the flesh of the cow’s distant cousin – the giraffe.
The results of Greenberg’s study proved consistent even within specified genres. However, empathising thinkers preferred mellow, unpretentious jazz, whilst systemising thinkers preferred intense, sophisticated, complex and avant-garde jazz. As researchers continued to analyse trends in the data, further intricacies of the personality preference link surfaced; empathetic thinkers enjoyed music that exhibited less energy, more emotional depth and negative emotions such as sadness or depression, whilst systematic thinkers enjoyed almost the opposite, songs with more energy, positive emotions and “a high degree of cerebral depth and complexity,” according to the study.
Not only is this link extraordinarily interesting in terms of psychological analysis but it also opens doors to potential applications in marketing and neuroscientific studies. When considering the large sums of money dedicated towards ultimately speculative music selection algorithms within programs like Spotify and Apple Music, identifying the thinking style of the listener and applying Greenberg’s study would be highly profitable in fine-tuning the music recommendations to the individual. Me listening to ‘Rap and Hip-Hop Radio’ should not indicate some sort of rebellious, juvenile connection with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie advertisements every three songs, Pandora.
Similarly, in partnership with Greenberg’s findings, a study published in 2009 in the Neuroscience Letters journal revealed that our music preference may not only be indicative of how we think but also affect the way we perceive the people around us. The study found that listening to happy and sad songs could change the way that people read other people’s faces; researchers had participants listen to a range of happy and sad songs, asking them to then rate the emotional status of various people’s faces. The study showed that those who listened to happier songs were able to identify happy faces, whilst those who listened to sad songs rated people predominantly as unhappy. It might be an idea to have Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’ playing quietly through the house speakers on results day – fails may not become H1s but frowns will (as scientifically proven) turn upside down.
Yet, despite David Greenberg’s success, psychological studies cannot explain why I used to get around 3OH!3.