What makes our music preferences so personal and revealing?

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Have you ever found a song you really loved and excitedly played it to one of your friends, only to get a shrug and an “I don’t see what the big deal is”?

Have you ever flipped through unfamiliar radio stations or stumbled upon a streaming playlist and asked yourself, “How can anyone enjoy listening to this?”

If so, you know how radically different individuals’ tastes in music can be. But where do these tastes come from? Why is it that some genres sound absolutely beautiful to some people, but completely repulsive to others? How come even two very similar songs can inspire two completely different reactions in a listener?

Let’s look at three reasons why we like what we like.

We prefer music that we’re familiar with

We tend to develop a preference for the style of music we hear most growing up[1–3]. That’s partly why people from different backgrounds often like different kinds of music.

Someone who grew up in Texas (or Cape Town, South Africa[4]), where country music is popular, is more likely than someone who grew up in New York to enjoy listening to it. By the same token, someone who grew up in South Korea (or certain parts of Saudi Arabia[4]) is more likely to enjoy K-pop than someone who grew up in Canada. And someone raised on the popular music of Western Europe, the coastal US, or Turkey[4] is more likely to enjoy rap than someone from Russia.

However, this isn’t the full story. After all, you probably listen to very different music now than you did as a child, and you likely know people who grew up in circumstances similar to your own who have very different music tastes.

We select genres that fit with our self-image

So where do these differences emerge? A critical period seems to be adolescence, a time when people place the most emphasis on music as a tool for self-reflection, self-understanding, and identity creation[1].

During this period of life, individuals use music as a way of “trying on” different aspects of their personal identity[1,5]. This means exposing oneself to different musical experiences to find out what resonates with one’s values, beliefs, and perspectives, what aids one in reminiscing about the past, and what speaks to one’s hopes or fears[1].

This search is often informed by stereotypes about the kinds of people who listen to a given genre[6,7].

For example, classical music listeners are thought to be sophisticated, inclined to deep thinking, religious, of a high social class, and appreciative of traditions[6]. An adolescent who identifies with these characteristics will be more likely to turn to classical music than one who doesn’t[1,8].

When adolescents find music they really like, these preferences tend to crystallize, and remain with them later in life[8,9].

We gravitate to music that resonates with our personality

But self-image is only part of what attracts people to a certain type of music. Your personality, gender, and age also play a role.

  • Sociable individuals tend to favor genres characterized by heavy bass, such as rap or dance music, as well as more rousing genres like rock, heavy metal, and punk.
  • People who are more open to new experiences tend to favor technically complex and lyrically reflective music[1,10].
  • Those who tend to reflect on their and others’ emotions gravitate toward music that is more mellow, relaxing, and gentle in structure, more somber or depressing in mood, and more thoughtful or reflective in lyrics.
  • Those who tend towards analytical thinking gravitate towards music that’s more intense, thrilling, and arousing, more upbeat and positive in mood, and more structurally complex[11].
  • Women are more likely than men to like music that is soft, romantic in tone, dance-oriented, or technically complex[1].
  • With increasing age, music buffs tend to listen to more technically complex and interesting songs, while casual listeners go for songs that are simpler[12], or that fit their current mood or activity[13].

This is what makes music preferences so interesting, revealing, and personally useful.

We like what we like because of our life experiences, important identities, and personality traits. We listen to clarify our values and explore our emotions. And we use music to find ourselves privately, and then broadcast that self to the world.

References

1. Schäfer, T., & Sedlmeier, P. (2010). What makes us like music? Determinants of music preference. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4, 223-234.

2. Gordon, P.C., & Holyoak, K.J. (1983). Implicit learning and generalization of the” mere exposure” effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 492-500.

3. Hargreaves, D.J., & Castell, K.C. (1987). Development of liking for familiar and unfamiliar melodies. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 65-69.

4. Feeney, N. (February 5, 2015). This map shows which music genres are most popular around the world. Time Magazine.

5. Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41, 954–969.

6. North, A.C., & Hargreaves, D.J. (1999). Music and adolescent identity. Music Education Research, 1, 75–92.

7. Rentfrow, P.J., McDonald, J.A., & Oldmeadow, J.A. (2009). You are what you listen to: Young people’s stereotypes about music fans. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 12, 329-344.

8. Holbrook, M.B., & Schindler, R.M. (1989). Some exploratory findings on the development of musical tastes. Journal of Consumer Research, 16, 119-124.

9. Hemming, J. (2013). Is there a peak in popular music preference at a certain song-specific age? A replication of Holbrook & Schindler’s 1989 study. Musicae Scientiae, 17, 293-304.

10. Rentfrow, P.J., & Gosling, S.D. (2003). The do re mi’s of everyday life: the structure and personality correlates of music preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1236-1254.

11. Greenberg, D.M., Baron-Cohen, S., Stillwell, D.J., Kosinski, M., & Rentfrow, P.J. (2015). Musical preferences are linked to cognitive styles. PloS one, 10, e0131151.

12. Schäfer, T. (2016). The goals and effects of music listening and their relationship to the strength of music preference. PloS one, 11, e0151634.

13. Juslin, P.N., & Isaksson, S. (2014). Subjective criteria for choice and aesthetic judgment of music: A comparison of psychology and music students. Research Studies in Music Education, 36, 179-198.