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Ever wonder why you like the music you like? Do you gravitate more toward complex jazz or does Bach float your boat? Who is on your playlist: Taylor Swift or Rage Against The Machine?
A new study by a group of British psychologists at the University of Cambridge sheds some light on the subject, finding that music listeners usually fall into one of two camps: those who are empathizers, or those who are systemizers.
“When we look at music, it's is a very emotional medium. We perceive emotion from it. We feel emotion from it,” says David Greenberg, lead author and Ph.D student at the University of Cambridge. “But music also contains an array of complexity and patterns and structural elements.”
Greenberg says he and his research partners had a hunch that our cognitive styles — the way we think — might play a role in what we like to listen to.
“We thought empathy, which is this drive to understand emotion and other peoples’ thoughts and to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes, might influence our preferences,” Greenberg says. “But we also thought that systemizing, which is this drive to analyze and construct different systems and to view and focus on different patterns and details in the world, might also be influencing preferences.”
To conduct the study, Greenberg and his cohorts studied more than 4,000 participants. The subjects were recruited after answering psychology-based questions on the myPersonality Facebook app. They were then asked to listen to and rate an array of music from 26 genres and subgenres including rock, country, jazz, and classical music.
Across the board, people with high scores in empathy preferred mellower music such as softer rock, country, folk and less complex forms of jazz and electronic music. Empathizers, Greenberg say, enjoyed music like the late folk singer Jeff Buckley’s rendition of “Hallelujah,” and Norah Jones’s “Come Away With Me.” They also enjoyed poppier rock songs such as Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
Those who scored higher in the systemizer category enjoyed more intense music like punk and heavy metal, and also more complex styles of jazz. Systemizers, Greenberg says, opted for the heavier, meticulously structured rock of Metallica and Rage Against The Machine.
A musician himself, Greenberg says the only surprise for him was how neatly it all played out.
“You could clearly see that the empathizers were preferring music that had low energy and negative emotions, such as sadness, as well as emotional depth. Then you had the systemizers, which were completely opposite. The were preferring music that had high energy, positive emotions and this cerebral or intellectual depth,” says Greenberg.
There is a much smaller third category, Greenberg say, that consists of people who enjoy music in a relatively equal way.
While it’s hardly the first study to examine our musical preferences, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, another of the study's authors, says the results may help shed light on more than just our musical likes and dislikes. Psychologists seeking to understand those on empathizing-systemizing extremes, such as people with autism, for example, might find the study of interest.