The Scientist Who Believes Your Personality Predicts Your Taste in Music

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Rear view of man listening to headphones at beach, Coney Island, New York, USA
Photo: Matt Dutile/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

There’s no accounting for taste, unless, that is, you are a scientist whose job it is to account for such intangible things. David Greenberg, a psychologist affiliated with the University of Cambridge and CUNY, recently published a large study involving about 4,000 participants, in which he and his co-authors purport to have established a new kind of personality paradigm. This one attempts to explain some people’s peculiar tastes in music.

Greenberg’s work focuses on personality and how individual differences may correlate with a person’s taste in music. In that paper, published in the journal PLOS ONE, Greenberg analyzed the results of a series of experiments involving about 4,000 people and, from that, argued that there are a few distinct personality types when it comes to music:

Empathizers: These are the people who are uncannily good at understanding others’ emotions — the ones you pour your heart out to. People who scored higher in this category tended to prefer R&B, adult contemporary, and soft rock. They almost universally veered toward lower-energy music, especially songs tinged with sadness or emotion — think Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.”

Systemizers: People who scored higher in this category, on the other hand, are more likely to strive to understand how things work. They may be very interested in how each part of a car functions to make the whole vehicle operate, for instance. Systemizers prefer joyful compositions that showed “sonic and intellectual complexity,” the type that many would call “avant garde” — groundbreaking artists like David Bowie or Beyoncé, for example.

And then there are balancers, who are a mix of both types. It’s an intriguing idea. And yet one wonders: Aren’t most of us balancers? And isn’t musical taste often indicative of mood over personality? A person could have a horrible day at work and want nothing but heavy metal clashing on their stereos, or a perfect summer afternoon might call for breezy tunes. Greenberg doesn’t deny the role of mood in musical preferences. “We’re looking at that now,” he told Science of Us. “We’ve done a study and looked at music preferences that day and then a few weeks later and they’re highly correlated. Tests have been done with weeks and months out, and they still stay the same.” In other words, your mood might indicate a short-term change in your playlist, but your personality is associated with some patterns that are stable over the long haul.

Recently, Spotify borrowed from Greenberg’s work to create a test that encourages users to figure out their “musical brain.” (It’s his second time collaborating with the streaming service; this one is also an ad for the TV show Brain Games.) Should you accept, Spotify will then “analyze” your playlist and tell you what the songs you love say about your personality. The results are underwhelming. It told me, based on the peppy music that gets me through the workday, that I was a sociable extrovert — this despite the fact that my ideal night is spent with some knitting and Netflix and tea in my living room.

Greenberg acknowledges that there is more work to be done here, and said that there are research projects in the works applying this to music therapy for people with autism, who seem to fit the “systemizer” category. As for me, I will continue to confuse Spotify and Greenberg by being a quieter soul who still prefers extrovert-y things like Álvaro Soler’s collaboration with Jennifer Lopez, “El Mismo Sol.”