Music and its role in our lives is the subject of this week’s blog. Every week on my radio show, Provocative Enlightenment, we get three musical favorites from our guests that we play when we come back from breaks, and then I ask, “Why this one and what does it tell us about who you are?” It’s often interesting, to say the least, the amount of self-disclosure that comes from this exercise. For example, we have had guests who suggest everything is all about oneness, peace and plenty and then choose songs that sing the story of lost loves or get even opportunities—even songs with lyrics that suggest life sucks and then you die. We have also caught the occasional guest who was truly ignorant of why they felt so strongly about their choices until we suggested the ever-present emerging pattern arising from their three selections.
Music psychology has, for some time now, offered theories about our musical tastes that included everything from aptitude to personality type. Not long ago one study suggested that you could determine one’s social class from the music they liked. According to the study, which was published in the Canadian Review of Sociology, the “Breadth of taste is not linked to class. But class filters into specific likes and dislikes.” The study asserted, “Poorer, less-educated people tended to like country, disco, easy listening, golden oldies, heavy metal and rap. Meanwhile, their wealthier and better-educated counterparts preferred genres such as classical, blues, jazz, opera, choral, pop, reggae, rock, world and musical theatre.” 1
Now personally I’m relieved the researchers also pointed out that the breadth of taste is not linked to these sociological factors since I enjoy country and oldies as much as I enjoy opera and jazz. In fact, I don’t think I could run a 10k without my 60’s music. So Ravinder knows that if I ever were to suffer severe dementia, it would be the 60’s music she would play to wake me up.
Alright, all of that aside, a new study reported just this last week suggests that our thinking style is linked to our musical preferences. A team of psychologists at the University of Cambridge reported in the Journal PLOS ONE, “That your thinking style — whether you are an ’empathizer’ who likes to focus on and respond to the emotions of others, or a ‘systemizer’ who likes to analyze rules and patterns in the world–is a predictor of the type of music you like.” 2
According to David Greenberg of the Psychology Department at Cambridge, “Although people’s music choices fluctuate over time, we’ve discovered a person’s empathy levels and thinking style predicts what kind of music they like. In fact, their cognitive style — whether they’re strong on empathy or strong on systems — can be a better predictor of what music they like than their personality. 3
The article, which appeared in Science Daily, continued with this observation. “People who scored high on empathy tended to prefer mellow music (from R&B, soft rock, and adult contemporary genres), unpretentious music (from country, folk, and singer/songwriter genres) and contemporary music (from electronica, Latin, acid jazz, and Euro pop). They disliked intense music, such as punk and heavy metal. In contrast, people who scored high on systemizing favoured intense music, but disliked mellow and unpretentious musical styles. The results proved consistent even within specified genres: empathizers preferred mellow, unpretentious jazz, while systemizers preferred intense, sophisticated (complex and avant-garde) jazz.” 4
Empathic or Systematic
They further found that “…Those who scored high on empathy preferred music that had low energy (gentle, reflective, sensual, and warm elements), or negative emotions (sad and depressing characteristics), or emotional depth (poetic, relaxing, and thoughtful features). Those who scored high on systemizing preferred music that had high energy (strong, tense, and thrilling elements), or positive emotions (animated and fun features), and which also featured a high degree of cerebral depth and complexity.”
The more we learn about music and how our brains process information, the more we discover just how important music is to all of us. It would appear that all of that old drumming, and vocalization, etc, connected with so many ancient rituals may have roots deeper than we might think. Not only does it hold the ability to entrain the brain, but it can elicit very strong and lasting emotions to say nothing of connecting in a very real sense to who we are and our cognitive life.
So, the next time you listen to someone’s favorite music, listen with a new ear to what that says about them—and you might think about this when it comes to your own favorites.
Thanks for the read,
NY Time Bestselling Author of Choices and Illusions