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I started writing this article way back in April 2020, but I knew I was saving it in the cyberspace drawer for a special moment. With everyone sharing their Best of 2020 on social media, now seems like the perfect time to get us all thinking about why we like and dislike certain music. Who said there was no such thing as coincidences?

Image Credit : Medium

There’s no doubt that music can have a powerful effect on us, both as individuals and on our culture as a whole. The music we listen to can influence our mood, bring people together and even tell stories that span the passage of time. Growing up, I enjoyed the music my parents listened to, mainly classic tunes from the ’70s and ’80s. In my teenage years, I was heavily influenced by the music my peers listened to. Today, I am generally not picky with my music. I like to think I listen to a wide variety of musical genres from alternative to rap, rock, R&B, hip hop and so on. Of course, there are the ‘no-go’ genres that my ears and brain just cannot process, including heavy metal and screamo. I don’t know the exact musical lingo, but I call it ‘heavy’ music. So, it got me thinking; what influences my musical preferences? And does my taste in music reveal something about my personality? How is it possible that two people can listen to the same song and have such different reactions to it?

The function of music in our society

Music is everywhere we go. We hear it at the shops, in the car, in movies we watch, at the gym and wherever businesses use it to sell products. It’s almost always in our background. But what purpose does music serve? Well, it turns out there are many!

Here are some common, research-backed uses of music:

  • Music as pure enjoyment and aesthetic appreciation
  • To inspire dance and physical movement
  • Mood management/regulation and/or enhancement
  • Distraction from other situations/troubles
  • Reduction of loneliness, feelings of comfort
  • Enhance concentration and cognitive function
  • Maintain alertness
  • Increase working productivity
  • Promote certain goals/messages
  • Social bonding
  • Transmission of oral history
  • Rituals/religion

Music taste is influenced by personality and thinking style

There is some research out there on musical preferences and their connection to the brain and personality. But, as with many things involving the mysterious brain, there is still much to be discovered.

Research is now beginning to understand that our musical preferences are a result of the combination of our personal values, personality traits and thinking style. So, how do these tastes develop?

Early researchers asking this question attempted to ‘map’ the landscape of music-genre preferences. This basically means they were trying to group individual genres into a ‘factor’ that they would then label. For example, in a 2003 study, researchers mapped fourteen genres of music into four factors. One such factor was labelled ‘reflective and complex’ and was comprised of the blues, classical, folk and jazz genres. Later studies would find many more factors grouping many genres. But, interestingly, these authors found that people who fell into each music–preference factor shared striking similarities in personalities and values. For example, people in the ‘upbeat and conventional’ factor, which comprised of country, pop, religious and soundtrack genres, tended to be more extroverted and agreeable but had lower levels of emotional stability and less developed verbal abilities. However, people of the ‘reflective and complex’ factor, comprised of blues, classical, folk and jazz genres, tended to be intelligent and more tolerant.

In another study, published in 2015, participants were asked to take a personality assessment clarifying their levels of empathetic and systematic thinking. They then had to rate their preference for various music excerpts. The results indicated that people scoring high in empathy gravitated towards mellow and reflective types of music such as folk, country and R&B. People who were found to be more systematic preferred music with higher degrees of complexity and intensity.

Our music taste evolves over time

In the same way, babies and children develop specific skills during a certain age, there is also a magic age when it comes to the development of music taste. It starts at fourteen and peaks around twenty-four years of age according to Daniel J. Levitin, director of the Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory at McGill University. During this time, our hormones enhance our experiences and allow us to develop specific tastes. In this case, music becomes “a badge of identity”. After this time, our identity and social groups are usually set in concrete. We tend to challenge our aesthetic preferences less. But, of course, everyone is different so there will always be exceptions (like those grandparents who love EDM).

On this note, there is also a reason why our parents and grandparents love listening to tunes that were top of the charts when they were younger. Studies have shown that people stop seeking out new music around their mid-thirties and instead gravitate back towards music they used to listen to during their younger years. This is so much so that people have reported more pleasure listening to songs of their era than any other period. Guess I’ll still be bopping along to Ari and The Weeknd when I’m sixty, huh?

The brain on music

Whatever you blast through your speakers will most likely cause your brain to release dopamine. That’s the same chemical released when you take certain drugs, have sex or eat chocolate. The ‘pleasure’ centres of the brain are triggered the same way through all these tasks.

Neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor has conducted experiments using functional MRI to track participants’ brain activity while they listened to the first thirty seconds of songs they were unfamiliar with. After each snippet, participants were offered the opportunity to purchase the song. However, unlike an iTunes card, it was formatted like an auction—they could place bids from between $0 to $2. Why do this, you ask? Well, if a participant spends $2 on a song, it would mean that a lot more dopamine was released during that song, reinforcing the connection between the pleasure centre and other parts of the brain like the amygdala, important in emotion processing, and the hippocampus, important for memory.

According to Salimpoor, our brains create ‘musical memory templates’ based on our past experiences and exposure to different styles of music. Essentially, our brain can predict how we’ll feel from a song based on similar music we have heard. Depending on what styles of music our brains have recorded, they can choose whether to reactivate these ‘reward’ pathways when listening to new music. An example of this is if you’ve never listened to classical music before—the first time you hear it, chances are you’ll probably be bored.

Image Credit: Jon Lieff, MD

When we hear the unassuming question ‘what kind of music do you listen to?’, we don’t think much about it. But it turns out our musical tastes and preferences are very much influenced by our psychology and physiology. Music is multifaceted, involving our hearing and emotions, and can influence our identity and social interactions. These emerging links connect music and the brain and highlight the importance of music to the human experience. Think about that the next time you throw that question around at a party!