ARE YOU WHO YOU LISTEN TO?  The Results May Surprise You by John Francis

The Results May Surprise You

“What are you listening to?”

You’ve probably heard that a time or two. You may have even said it yourself when someone you know is listening to music that just doesn’t seem to fit in with their personality, age, gender or social standing.

And it’s not even really a question, more like an expression of incredulity or shock, as in “something’s wrong with this picture.” So, if you think about it, we’re already conditioned to linking someone’s personality with the music they like and listen to.

But you wouldn’t expect a young upwardly mobile Wall Street trader to listen to country music or mellow New Age music (think relaxing day spa), and you wouldn’t expect your parents to be jamming to Lil Wayne or Slick Rick.

It used to be you could get a measure of a person with one simple act: go through their album collection (remember them?) If it was mostly classical music, you knew they were more than likely introspective, intelligent, reflective, creative and even a little introverted.

But, if there’s a lot of Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica in their album collection, you would expect them to be just the opposite: Angry, not very creative or introspective and not very at ease. But you would be wrong.

Oddly enough, research has shown that classical music lovers and metalheads have many similarities in personality.

In an exhaustive study conducted by British university professor and researcher Adrian North, who surveyed more than 36,000 people in more than 60 countries to rate a wide range of musical styles in order of preference, these two seemingly disparate groups have many things in common when it comes to personality.

“The general public has held a stereotype of heavy metal fans being suicidally depressed and being a danger to themselves and society in general,” North said in an interview on, “but they are quite delicate things. Aside from their age, they’re basically the same kind of person (as a classical music fan). Lots of heavy metal fans will tell you that they also like Wagner, because it’s big, loud and brash. There’s also a sense of theater in both heavy rock and classical music, and I suspect that this is what they’re really trying to get at when they listen.”

Professor North says classical and heavy metal draw listeners with similar personalities, but of different ages. Younger listeners are drawn to heavy metal, while older listeners like classical, but they both have the same basic motivations for listening to their preferred music. They both want to hear something dramatic and theatrical, and they share the “love of the grandiose.”

Bet you didn’t see that one coming!

In conducting his research, which covered a wide range of issues, such as the social and applied psychology of music, in particular the relationship between pop music culture and deviant behavior in adolescence, music and consumer behavior, and the role of musical preference in everyday life, North said he wanted to know why music plays such a significant role in forming people’s personalities.

“People do actually define themselves through music and relate to other people through it but we haven’t known in detail how music is connected to identity,” he says. “We have always suspected a link between music taste and personality. This is the first time that we’ve been able to look at it in real detail. No one has ever done this on this scale before.”

And if you Google the links between music and personality, you’ll get a raft of research on this issue, some way too scholarly and dry for such a seemingly lighthearted topic, and some very accessible and interesting, such as North’s study.

For example, here’s an unwieldy passage from a study headed by University of Cambridge psychologist David M. Greenberg, “Musical Preferences are Linked to Cognitive Styles,” an otherwise intriguing study that has a lot to say about music and personality.

“By reporting their preferential reactions to musical stimuli, samples 1 and 2 (Ns = 2,178 and 891) indicated their preferences for music from 26 different genres, and samples 3 and 4 (Ns = 747 and 320) indicated their preferences for music from only a single genre (rock or jazz).”

That passage perfectly illustrates writer E.B. White’s comment, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.”

So, in that sense, if you have to explain why you like a certain type of music or musical artist or how your musical tastes reflect your personality, perhaps it loses a little bit of its appeal.

But that’s not to say Greenberg’s study has no merit, it has plenty of nuggets of wisdom and revealing information.

Greenberg’s study identified what he calls “three broad thinking styles,” empathizers, those who have strong interest in thoughts and feelings in themselves and others; systemizers, or those who have a strong interest in patterns, systems and rules; and those in between, who have strong interest in both, called the balanced group or Type B.

According to Greenberg, 95% of people can be classified in one of the three groups and that, in turn, tells us a lot about them.

Empathizers tend to prefer mellow music that evokes deep emotion and are interested in music’s emotional qualities and how it makes them feel. Systemizers prefer intense music that forms complex sounds and are more intrigued by music’s structural qualities.

Those who like both mellow music and intense music fall into the balanced thinking style.

“We are seeking music that reflects who we are, so that includes personality, that includes the way we think, and it may even be the way our brain is wired,” Greenberg says in a CNN interview.

So, what’s the upshot to all this research on music and personality? Well, many things, including:

  • Your taste in music does tell a lot about you, even your politics.
  • Your musical taste, as in many things, is influenced by your parents.
  • Your love of a certain song is associated with an intense emotional experience from your life
  • The music you enjoyed in your 20s you will more than likely love for the rest of your life.
  • Rock stars are all vain and egotistical.

OK, that last one is only partially true, but you get the picture.

Now back to that album collection you used to peruse to figure out your friend’s tastes. That’s becoming harder and harder to do: album sales hit a 25-year low last year, CD album sales dropped by 12%, even digital album downloads were down by 18% last year!

These days it’s all about streaming, baby. Spotify, Apple Music, Napster, Google and Amazon. Rapper Drake, who was 2016’s top-selling artist, sold only 300,000 physical CDs, but his songs were streamed an astounding 2.8 billion times. In fact, streaming in 2016 saw a whopping 77% percent increase over 2015, to a mind-boggling 234 billion streams.

You could always ask to see your friend’s Spotify playlist or history, but those could be all over the map, causing more confusion than clarity. But it could be a fun exercise. Are they an empathizer, a systemizer or balanced?

Still, at the end of the day, it gets down to that same question: “What ARE you listening to?!” The answer may surprise you.

The Musical Universe
This project is part of ongoing scientific research in music psychology. Select a quiz and receive your scores instantly.
Quiz – What Does Your Musical Taste Say About You?
Are you more content listening to what the radio has to offer or do you need to delve a little deeper? Let’s find out what gets your feet tapping and what exactly that says about you.
Quiz – What kind of person are you, based on your musical tastes?

Available at Click on title for more information.
The Social and Applied Psychology of Music
by Adrian North and David Hargreaves

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