The Psychology of Taste: The Intertwining of Music and Identity

Does your music preference reveal insights regarding your character?

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Ellora Klein

Spotify’s extensive genre selection allows listeners to immerse themselves in the music of their choice.

Music preference seems like a subconscious series of choices: which of these sound medleys massages my brain in the best way possible, which of these voices does my auditory cortex enjoy processing, and which of these rhythms causes an unconscious head bob? As someone who listened to 47,418 minutes of music and 583 different genres in 2020, I found many songs and quite a few genres that elicited these sought-after reactions. 

What I did not know while listening was that those 47,418 minutes of music were not only reflecting parts of my personality, but also changing it (If I had known this, I may have cut back on the hours of mildly distressing Radiohead songs). 

It is obvious that song choice can reflect and regulate mood. I have seen more than enough Spotify playlists dedicated entirely to mournful songs for a cry session, throwbacks for a moment of nostalgia, and upbeat tunes for a cheerful morning to back this up. I myself have a few of these mood-centered playlists, which I listen to for emotional regulation: putting myself into a mood, continuing a mood, or leaving a mood behind. 

The idea that one’s personality can be identified through their music is something different altogether. I always find it curious when people seem insecure about their music, or make it more private than it should be. But rather than not wanting others to know that they are listening to Taylor Swift before bed, could this be because they do not want you to see Taylor Swift as a reflection of their character?

I mean, if I knew that my character was being judged through my Vampire Diaries soundtrack playlist, I would get defensive too. Admittedly, the soundtrack is not great.  

The extent to which personality and music taste are correlated is widely debated, and different studies show varying degrees of strength in their relationship. In actuality, there are a number of factors that contribute to both personality and music taste, and neither can be completely determined by the other. 

However, trends between studies have shown clear relationships between specific genres and traits. Plasticity traits, like openness to experience and level of extroversion versus introversion, seem to have a more significant effect on music choice than stability traits, like agreeableness and neuroticism. 

A study conducted by researchers at Heriot-Watt University gathered data from over 36,000 participants and found links between music genres and personality traits. Pop listeners tended to be more extroverted and conventional, rap listeners were more likely to be outgoing, rock and indie listeners were more creative and introverted, and jazz/blues listeners were frequently found to be extroverted.

I attempted to emulate these results using some of my willing Instagram followers, to see if I would find similar relationships. Albeit it was a small sample size of around 50 people, but my followers’ self-perceived traits and tastes did seem to corroborate the published findings.

In my study, I had the participants share their most-listened-to genre of music, and then a word they would use to describe themselves. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the people that shared the same most-listened-to genre also shared similar self-perceived traits. 

Rock, for instance, had trending traits of creativity, determination, and extroversion. Obviously not every single rock-lover fit under these descriptors, but many of them did. Similarly, pop music listeners shared the common descriptors of being caring, friendly, and social. These results somewhat match the results of the Heriot-Watt University study, as both found rock lovers to be creative and pop listeners to be outgoing. 

A different study conducted by researchers at Bundeswehr University Munich found results that coincided with mine as well, stating that more agreeable individuals preferred conventional and upbeat music, and extroverted listeners preferred energetic music like rap and pop. 

Depending on the individual, other factors such as social identity, demographics, and familiarity may play a greater role in controlling music preference. Social identity can drive many listeners to center their music taste around the self-view they hold, as individuals may subconsciously choose to listen to music that reinforces the idea they have of themselves or how they want to be perceived. For example, someone who views themself as rebellious may listen to heavy metal music to reinforce that image to themselves and to those around them. 

Demographic attributes like gender and age also have a strong effect on music preference, as women are found to often have a more emotional response to music and prefer popular music more than men. Similarly, music taste seems to shift with age, as our preferences grow along with us. Adolescents lean towards more “intense” music, which later transitions into “contemporary” music in early adulthood and “sophisticated” music in later years. 

Familiarity with a particular song or genre also has an interesting influence on preference. Memories, people, or specific periods of time associated with songs or artists can often change one’s perspective on that genre; I am sure that many music-lovers have experienced this phenomenon themselves. With songs that sound like ones that I associate with my childhood, I tend to respond to more positively to them than I respond to songs with which I am unfamiliar, for example. 

This is not to say that your taste will be solely defined by your personality or any of the factors listed above, but they may play a greater role than you think. The next time that you listen to your favorite playlists, think about what the songs and genres you chose may say about who you are or even who you want to be. You may be surprised to find that your choices were not as random as you may have believed them to be.

Social identity can drive many listeners to center their music taste around the self-view they hold, as individuals may subconsciously choose to listen to music that reinforces the idea they have of themselves or how they want to be perceived.

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