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Music Tastes Are Related To How Your Brain Works: Study

07/24/2015 12:56 EDT | Updated 07/27/2015 11:59 EDT

While temperament, personality and values are some of the things that shape our musical preferences, cognitive style may be an even more accurate predictor. Such is the theory posited by a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge in a study published in the journal "PLOS ONE."

Music is a key part of everyday life for many and it's present nearly everywhere we go. But why do we prefer one style of music to another? A team of researchers at the University of Cambridge, led by PhD student David Greenberg, set out to answer this question.

The authors of the study explain that "Research has shown that musical preferences and personality are linked, yet little is known about other influences on preferences such as cognitive styles. To address this gap, we investigated how individual differences in musical preferences are explained by the empathizing-systemizing (E-S) theory."

To accomplish this, they decided to focus on two types of people: type-E (empathizers) and type-S (systemizers). A type-E person scores highly on "empathy" (our ability to recognize and react to the thoughts and feelings of others, and a type-S person scores highly on "systemizing" (our interest in understanding the rules and underpinning systems such as the weather, music or car engines).

The researchers conducted multiple studies on over 4,000 participants recruited mainly through the Facebook application myPersonality. The users first answered a series of psychology-based questionnaires, and at a later date were asked to listen to and rate 50 musical pieces from 26 genres and sub-genres. This ensured that the participants would have minimal personal or cultural associations with the music.

The results of the study, published in PLOS ONE on July 22, indicate that the empathizers tended to prefer mellow, unpretentious and contemporary music (R&B, soft rock, country, folk, singer/songwriter, electronica, Latin, acid jazz, Euro Pop) and shy away from intense music (punk, heavy metal). Conversely, systemizers favoured intense music but disliked mellow and unpretentious genres.

A more in-depth look revealed that those who scored high on empathy preferred music that had low energy and emotional depth while their counterparts preferred music with high energy and positive emotions.

The implications for the music industry are important, because as David Greenberg notes, "A lot of money is put into algorithms to choose what music you may want to listen to, for example on Spotify and Apple Music. By knowing an individual's thinking style, such services might in future be able to fine tune their music recommendations to an individual."

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