Musical Preferences May Reflect Cognitive Style

New research highlights the connection between a person’s cognitive style and musical preferences.

Two new studies suggest that people with a tendency toward empathizing prefer mellow music across a multitude of genres, while individuals with a bias toward systemizing prefer music that features high arousal and complexity.

Researchers also report that empathy levels are linked to a preference for mellow music within a single genre and negatively correlate with preferences for intense music.

“People high on empathy were preferring music that had lower levels of energy and featured negative emotion such as sadness,” said David M. Greenberg, a PhD candidate from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “Systemizers, on the other hand, were preferring music that had higher energy, more positive emotions, and greater cerebral depth, which has to do with the degree of complexity that music has in terms of its structural components.”

“These results confirmed our initial predictions that empathizers would prefer music from the mellow dimension and systemizers would prefer music from the intense dimension,” Greenberg told Medscape Medical News. “However, we didn’t anticipate that empathy would be a better predictor of preference for music in these dimensions than the Big 5 personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism).”

Their report was published online July 20 in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal from the Public Library of Science.

Empathy and Systemizing

Previous research has shown a link between musical preferences and personality, the authors write.

“People who are open to new experiences tend to prefer music from the blues, jazz, classical, and folk genres,” Greenberg explained, “and people who are extraverted and agreeable tend to prefer music from the pop, soundtrack, religious, soul, funk, electronic, and dance genres.”

Despite this research, however, little is known about other influences on musical preferences, such as cognitive style.

Prior studies have established that empathy, defined as “the ability to identify, predict, and respond appropriately to the mental states of others,” and systemizing, defined as “the ability to identify, predict, and respond to the behavior of systems by analyzing the rules that govern them,” can explain a whole range of behaviors and be used to understand psychological differences. Females score higher on empathy than do males, for example, and people on the autism spectrum tend to have elevated levels of systemizing.

Whether or not these two dimensions affect musical taste, though, has not been clear.

For the first study, researchers examined the correlation between empathy levels and musical preferences across several cohorts. More than 2000 participants, recruited via Facebook, completed self-report questionnaires, including the Empathy Quotient and a personality test based on the 5 broad domains of personality. Participants then listened to 50 musical excerpts representing 26 different genres.

After listening to the 15-second pieces, participants reported their degree of liking for each. Samples 1 and 2 (n = 2178 and 891) indicated their preference for music from 26 different genres, and samples 3 and 4 (n = 747 and 320) indicated their preferences for music from a single genre (rock or jazz).

“Empathy was linked to and correlated with mellow music,” Greenberg observed, “which means that samples who received different genres of music (S1 and S2) were preferring music from the soft rock, R&B, and adult contemporary genres.”

Even in the cohorts receiving music from a single genre (S3 and S4), participants consistently preferred music that was from mellow rock as opposed to intense rock, he said.

Table. Correlation between the Empathy Quotient (S1–S4) and Musical Preferences

Musical Preference S1 (Mixed Genre) S2 (Mixed Genre) S3 (Rock Music) S4 (Jazz Music)
Mellow 0.09a 0.11a 0.14a 0.06
Unpretentious 0.08a 0.04 0.04 0.01
Sophisticated 0.03 0.01 0.00 –0.14b
Intense –0.10a –0.11a –0.13a –0.08
Contemporary 0.04b 0.09a 0.13a 0.11b
a P < .01.

b P < .05.

The second study replicated and extended these findings by investigating how musical preferences are differentiated by empathy and systemizing cognitive styles. Type E individuals (classified as having as having higher scores in empathy than systemizing) preferred music from the mellow dimension. Type S individuals (classified as having higher systemizing scores than empathy), however, preferred music that was more intense — from heavy metal to hard rock to punk genres.

“Regarding sonic attributes,” said Greenberg, “type E preferred music with strings, while type S preferred music that was dense, distorted, loud, percussive, fast, and that featured brass and electrical guitar.”

Greenberg and colleagues have several studies in the works, focusing on not just musical preferences but something called musical engagement — the different ways that people engage in music based on psychological attributes.

Empathy Priming?

Asked to comment on these findings, Daniel C. Potts, MD, attending neurologist at Department of Veterans Affairs in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and member of the American Academy of Neurology, made the following observations:

“The main interest I have in the article is the potential application of this research regarding the concept of empathy priming in individuals or groups,” said Dr Potts. “For instance, it is exciting to think that it may be possible to design therapies which might enhance an individual or group’s capacity for empathy (autistic individuals, victims of violence, persons with PTSD, et cetera).

“The authors correctly state that the results reported here are correlational, and therefore causation cannot be inferred,” he added. “Nevertheless, this research may help to guide other groups to design longitudinal studies which could assess the effects of music with certain attributes on empathy priming.”

David B. Greenberg was supported by the Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust. Dr Potts has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

PLoS ONE. Published online July 30, 2015. Abstract


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