How much can you tell about a person by looking through their music collection? Music is a choice, and every choice we make subtly relates to our personality. The clothes you wear, the food you eat, and the words you use are all linked to your unique traits and characteristics. So it’s not hard to see why you might be able to glean a lot of information from someones playlist. Of course, they would also be able to tell a lot about you, too. Before we get into the ways in which your music defines you, we need to clarify what ‘personality’ is and what it’s made up of.
Who Are You?
You would be right to question the legitimacy of some measures of personality. Many tests over generalize certain factors, and we are all very complex beings that exhibit different characteristics depending on the situation and our mood. Vox recently lamented that one of the most popular personality tests—the Myers-Briggs—is only good for entertainment value.
Despite the criticisms, it’s not hard to see that we are each unique, and we all have defining features underlying much of our behavior. When we dig down to find out what these typical features are, we can start to find the categories that personalities tend to scale across.
The measurement that most researchers tend to use is the Big 5 personality traits. You can take an online test here to determine where you sit. These are the defining characteristics:
Openness to Experience—People high in openness are generally more curious and creative, seeking out new experiences and variety. Those lower in openness are more persistent and pragmatic.
Extraversion—People high in extraversion are more outgoing and sociable, while those more to the introversion side are reserved and reflective.
Conscientiousness—People high in conscientiousness are more disciplined and organized, while those with lower levels are more easy-going and spontaneous.
Agreeableness—People high in agreeableness are friendly and compassionate, while those at the opposite end are detached and analytical.
Neuroticism—High neuroticism leads people to experience negative emotions such as nervousness, anger and anxiety very easily. Those lower in neuroticism are more calm, confident, and emotionally stable.
The important thing to remember regarding these traits is that while it is easy to label someone as being an introvert or as neurotic, they are scales—not many people exist at the extremes, instead we mostly accommodate the middle areas with a slight lean one way or the other.
The Relationship to Music
There have been a large range of studies looking at music and personality type, but one of the most notable comes from the University of Texas at Austin, whom ran a series of 6 studies comprising 3,500 participants. The studies revealed what the researchers determined to be 4 main dimensions of music:
Reflective and Complex—music such as blues, jazz, classical and folk, which they found correlates with openness to experience, self perceived intelligence, and political liberalism.
Intense and Rebellious—music such as rock, alternative, and heavy metal, which correlated with openness to experience, athleticism, and self perceived intelligence.
Upbeat and Conventional—includes music such as country, sound tracks, religious, and pop, which correlated with extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and self perceived attractiveness.
Energetic and Rhythmic—includes rap, hip hop, soul, funk, and electronic/dance, and correlates with extraversion, agreeableness, liberalism, self perceived attractiveness, and athleticism.
Our underlying personality traits say a lot about the type of music we’ll enjoy, but that’s only one part of the story.
The culture we grow up in also makes a big difference. Research suggests that we start forming mental representations of our cultural music (such as scales, rhythms, and instruments) when we’re as young as one year old.
While the music of different cultures can sound messy and confusing to someone unfamiliar with them, I would hesitate a guess that different cultures and those that are familiar with them could—just as we can—identify music as either reflective, intense, upbeat, or energetic, and that they would correlate with similar personalities.
There’s also the obvious influence of our mood and the situation. At different times we might feel like some reflective music, while at others we want to energize ourselves with upbeat and rhythmic music. As mentioned earlier, each trait is a scale that we can sit at certain points on—rarely is someone at the extreme—however, we can also slide along in either direction from time to time, depending on how we feel and the circumstances we’re in.
Your personality defines how you react to the world around you. Your special mix of characteristics will go a long way to determining the types of music—and almost everything else—that you find the most pleasure in.
Written by: Sam Brinson
Sam is a writer and researcher with interests in the brain, personal development, and creative expression. He is currently writing a book on developing better learning habits—'Connecting the Dots.' You can follow him on Twitter here.