Is your iPod packed with poetic Norah Jones songs? Do you have a Spotify playlist dedicated to Metallica? A new study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests that your musical tastes can provide valuable insight into how your brain processes information.
While music preference has already been linked to characteristics such as age, gender, and personality (extraverted people, for example, tend to prefer pop and dance music), researchers at Oxford University found that musical taste is a reflection of whether a person is more of an "empathizer" or "systemizer." The researchers define empathizers as those who prefer to focus on the mental states and emotions of others and systemizers as those who like to analyze rules and patterns in the world.
Your position on this thinking-style spectrum indicates your "brain type" – i.e. whether you approach the world through a more empathizing or systemizing lens – which in turn, the researchers found, informs the kind of music that draws you in.
"Although people's music choices fluctuate over time, we've discovered a person's empathy levels and thinking style predicts what kind of music they like," David Greenberg, the study's lead author, said in a statement. "In fact, their cognitive style -- whether they're strong on empathy or strong on systems -- can be a better predictor of what music they like than their personality."
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To conduct the study, researchers recruited nearly 4,500 participants online using Facebook's myPersonality app and Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Participants filled out psychology-based questionnaires and then, sometime later, listened to and rated 50 pieces of music.
After analyzing the data, the researchers were able to identify some through lines.
Individuals who scored high on empathy typically preferred music low on arousal (gentle, reflective, sensual and warm) that featured "sad and depressing" attributes and displayed "emotional depth," i.e. poetic, relaxing and thoughtful. Thematically, this translated into a taste for "mellow music" (genre-wise, R&B/soul, adult contemporary, soft rock) and a dislike of "intense music" (punk, heavy metal, and hard rock.)
Participants on the systemizing side of the spectrum tended to prefer high-energy music (containing manic, strong, tense and thrilling elements) with "animated and fun" attributes. In general, this meant a preference for 'intense music' (most frequently punk, heavy metal and hard rock.) The researchers even broke users' preferences down into musical elements: empathizers were drawn to music with strings, while systemizers liked music that was dense, loud, fast and featured brass and electric guitar.
Wonder what category your favorite songs fall under? Here's a skeletal list of the type of songs the researchers believe are high on empathy and systemizing, respectively.
High on empathy
- Hallelujah - Jeff Buckley
- Come away with me - Norah Jones
- All of me - Billie Holliday
- Crazy little thing called love - Queen
High on systemizing
- Concerto in C - Antonio Vivaldi
- Etude Opus 65 No 3 -- Alexander Scriabin
- God save the Queen - The Sex Pistols
- Enter the Sandman - Metallica
Is it possible that by listening to music that scores high with empathizers, individuals could be primed to increase their empathetic thinking abilities?
While the study didn't address that question directly, the researchers think it's likely. "Future research should pinpoint the musical styles and specific sonic and psychological attributes that prime empathy, and also those elements that may decrease it," the study reads.
From there, it would be possible to create musical therapies that help teach emotions and mental states through music, which would be particularly helpful for individuals on the autism spectrum.
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