Story at a glance

  • Studies have shown a link between music preferences and a person’s propensity to empathize with others.
  • Researchers have also found a connection between music taste and personality traits.
  • While researchers are still investigating a link between listening to music and its ability to influence a person’s mood long-term, strong evidence has shown how music can improve or dampen your mood more immediately.

For those currently partaking in the online dating scene, you may have recently been asked what your zodiac sign is. Whether astrology is something you believe in or not, being labeled a “total” Pisces or a Sagittarius by a prospective romantic partner is a part of that person’s pursuit of gaining knowledge about who you are as a person — the same way we might ask whether someone might be a dog or a cat person. A seemingly frivolous question, many people could interpret more from your answer than what might seem obvious.

Another age-old personality question is linked to music preference. Now, thanks to research, these questions could actually help answer whether you might be more compatible with someone because you both vibe to jazz while cooking dinner, or less compatible because only one of you likes punk rock.

Musical taste matters

It turns out that there is more to the question than appears on the surface, and multiple psychological studies have supported the idea that musical preferences are actually linked to our cognitive styles, or the way we think about, and react to, the world around us. 

One study shows a link between preferred musical genres and our capacity for empathy, with results across samples showing that empathy levels are linked to preferences even within genres. Empathy, as the authors of the study explain, is “the ability to identify, predict, and respond appropriately to the mental states of others,” and people use empathy while perceiving different types of musical content, reacting to it both emotionally and physiologically.

The researchers found that those they categorized as type E, or those with a bias towards empathizing, preferred mellow music that might fall within the genres of R&B and soft rock, while those that prefer “Intense dimension” genres such as heavy metal and hard rock tend to show a bias towards systemizing, or logic-based thinking, rather than showing empathy.

The same study also found an interesting link between type E individuals and music with attributes researchers define as “gentle, warm, and sensual” as well as depressing, sad music and songs with emotional depth, such as poetic or thoughtful songs. Those with type S or extreme type S personalities tend to gravitate toward “high arousal” types of music, such as songs that might be described as “strong, tense, and thrilling,” as well as songs with cerebral depth and complexity.

Music and the big five

In 2016, University of Cambridge music psychologist David Greenberg performed a study with his colleagues called “The Song Is You,” aimed at evaluating how the main three dimensions of music, “arousal” (the energy level of music), “valence” (the spectrum from sad to happy emotions in music) and “depth” (the amount of sophistication and emotional depth in music), are linked to the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Their results are what one might generally expect — self-assured people were more likely to enjoy positive music, while those who seek excitement prefer high arousal music. Greenberg says that those who were defined as open minded had not only a more general preference for music overall, but were also more open to music that spanned genres or might be defined as “genre-fluid.” 

16 Personalities, an online Myers-Briggs test that has been taken by more than 388 million people so far, has even found strong links between music taste and the 16 different personality types they identified. “Analyst” type personalities, they found, tend to be those that “are most often respected for the sheer technical expertise at work as much as for the more emotional qualities of these songs,” according to the report, such as rock, classical and jazz. They also tend to be the heaviest users of headphones.

Diplomats, by contrast, tend to seek out music characterized by great emotional intensity and depth, such as blues, soul, world and alternative.

“The idea that music is solely entertainment, or even just a pure aesthetic experience, is very misguided,” Greenberg explains. “Music is a form of language. It’s a part of human evolution, and it’s deeply embedded into our brains.”


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Published on Apr 06, 2021