What your music says about you: Study finds link between musical taste and personality type

NO ARCHIVE NO SALES EDITORIAL USE ONLY Ed Sheeran performs during day two of Capital's Jingle Bell Ball with Barclaycard at London's O2 Arena. Picture date: Saturday December 12, 2021.
Jonathan Hordle/PA Wire/PA Images
Perfect example: Ed Sheeran was loved by extroverts Credit: PA

Liking Ed Sheeran could mean that you are an extrovert - while if you are prone to following the rules, you are unlikely to have Rage Against the Machine on your playlist.

That is according to new research by Cambridge academic Dr David Greenberg.

The study, which involved more than 350,000 participants in 50 countries, found links between the tunes we love listening to and our personality traits.

And Dr Greenberg found that where you live has no bearing on the results - so an outgoing person in Basildon is as likely to love Ed's song Shivers as one in Buenos Aires.

Some of the other eye-opening findings were that those with neurotic traits would likely be into Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit.

Meanwhile, agreeable people the world over will tend to like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, or Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s Shallow.

Rebel, Rebel: Those who question authority might like Rage Against the Machine Credit: PA Images

Those of a more conscientious bent, those people who like to follow the rules, are unlikely to enjoy Rage Against the Machine, or artists with rebellious lyrics like Billy Bragg.

Dr Greenberg said: "We thought that neuroticism would have likely gone one of two ways, either preferring sad music to express their loneliness or preferring upbeat music to shift their mood."

  • Watch a TEDx talk by Dr Greenberg

"Actually, on average, they seem to prefer more intense musical styles, which perhaps reflects inner angst and frustration.

“That was surprising, but people use music in different ways – some might use it for catharsis, others to change their mood.

Listen to the ITV News showbiz insider podcast, Unscripted:

If you are beginning to worry that an eclectic collection of CDs says something unpleasant about you - Dr Greenberg, who is also a professional saxophonist, said a diverse playlist is typical of people who are open-minded.

“I’ve always loved jazz and now I'm also really into the music of different world religions, which makes perfect sense based on my personality traits," he said.

How did the study work?

What was the methodology?

Dr Greenberg and his colleagues used two different methods to examine the musical preferences of more than 350,000 people living in more than 50 countries.

The first required people to self-report the extent to which they liked listening to 23 genres of music as well as completing a personality test and providing some information about themselves.

The second used a more advanced approach and asked participants to listen to short audio clips from 16 genres and subgenres of Western music and give their preferential reactions to each.

Back to top

Why Western music?

The researchers focused on Western music because it is the most listened to globally and results based on Western music offer the strongest potential to be applied in real-world and therapeutic settings, they said.

Back to top

How did they define the genres?

The researchers used the MUSIC model - which identifies five key musical styles:

  • M = Mellow: featuring romantic, slow attributes as heard in soft rock and R&B;

  • U = Unpretentious: uncomplicated and relaxing as heard in country genres;

  • S = Sophisticated: inspiring & complex as heard in classical, operatic, and jazz;

  • I = Intense: loud, and aggressive as heard in classic rock, punk and heavy metal;

  • C = Contemporary: upbeat, and electronic attributes as heard in the rap and Euro-pop.

Back to top

Why is it important?

For thousands of years, humans have broadcast sounds to other groups to establish whether they have similar values, whether they could share resources or whether they are about to fight.

Today, people are using music as a way to signal their personality and so, the study argues, there is potential to use music to address social division.

Back to top

"Musical preferences do shift and change, they are not set in stone. And we are not suggesting that someone is just extroverted or just open.

“We all have combinations of personality traits and combinations of musical preferences of varying strengths. Our findings are based on averages and we have to start somewhere to begin to see and understand connections.”

And at a time of increased political polarisation, he thinks music is a unifying force.

“People may be divided by geography, language and culture, but if an introvert in one part of the world likes the same music as introverts elsewhere, that suggests music could be a very powerful bridge," he said.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, explains why personality traits are linked to musical styles.