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How cognitive style influences musical preferences

Posted on 03-12-16 in Cognition, Emotion

How cognitive style influences musical preferences

Music is an important part of our daily lives. Ninety-three percent of the U.S. population spends at least 25 hours per week listening to their favorite music, according to the 2014 Nielson’s Music 360 study. Music is very much a social experience, through which people share the experiences of singing, dancing and playing instruments together. Most people listen to music for pure enjoyment and aesthetic appreciation — individuals spend several hours a day listening to music on their morning commutes, while working out, while doing chores and during leisure time.

Researchers have also been interested in uncovering the underlying factors such as how we think or how certain personality traits influence the types of music we prefer listening to. For example, David Rawlings, D.Phil., from the department of psychology at the University of Melbourne, and his colleague found that people who were extraverts were more likely to enjoy popular musical styles, while those who scored high on openness enjoyed a wide range of musical types.

Not only does personality influence musical preference, but style of thinking and tendency to empathize with others — or the ability to identify, predict and respond appropriately to the mental states of others — can contribute to musical preference as well. A person’s thinking style and tendency to empathize with others may even be more influential in our musical preferences than our personalities, according to two recent studies published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Link between musical preferences and cognitive styles

As people grow older, they tend to show preferences for certain types of musical attributes and styles. Past research has shown that musical preferences and personality are linked; however, there little is known about the link between other influences on musical preferences. Two recent studies conducted by David M. Greenberg, a doctoral candidate from the University of Cambridge, and his colleagues from the University of Cambridge and Stanford University, sought to determine why people have preferences for certain types of music. The researchers used the following five musical attribute dimensions of the MUSIC model to determine musical preferences:

  • Mellow: romantic, relaxing, unaggressive, sad, slow and quiet attributes (e.g., soft rock, R&B and adult contemporary genres)
  • Unpretentious: uncomplicated, relaxing, unaggressive, soft and acoustic attributes (e.g., country, folk, and singer and songwriter genres)
  • Sophisticated: inspiring, intelligent, complex and dynamic (e.g., classical, operatic, avant-garde, world beat and traditional jazz genres)
  • Intense: distorted, loud, aggressive, not relaxing, unromantic or uninspiring attributes (e.g., classic rock, punk, heavy metal and power pop genres)
  • Contemporary: percussive, electric and not sad (e.g., rap, electronic, Latin, acid jazz and Euro pop genres)

The researchers first investigated the role of empathy in musical preferences. Four samples containing 4,136 participants were asked to complete measures of empathy (i.e., the Empathy Quotient) and personality traits (i.e., the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised). The participants listened to music from 26 different genres and subgenres. The second study examined the relationship between musical preferences and cognitive styles.

To determine how musical preferences differed according to the brain type E (i.e., “empathizers”), type S (i.e., “systemizers”) and type B (i.e., “balanced”), the researchers used the empathizing-systemizing theory to categorize participants by their “brain type” (i.e., E-S cognitive styles). Cognitive style (i.e., “brain type”) was determined by the participants’ scores on a measure of empathy, or their ability to focus on, and respond and react to others’ thoughts and emotions, and systemizing, or their interest in understanding and analyzing the rules and patterns in the world governing systems such as the music or the weather.

The participants who scored higher on empathy compared to systemizing were “empathizers” (i.e., type E), while those who scored higher on systemizing were considered to be “systemizers” (i.e., type S). If participants scored similarly on empathy and systemizing, they were considered to be “balanced” (i.e., type B).

The researchers found that people high on empathy (“type E”) preferred mellow, unpretentious and contemporary music, but disliked intense music such as punk and heavy metal. High empathy individuals also preferred music with low energy (i.e., gentle, reflective, sensual and warm features), negative valence (emotions) (i.e., sad and depressing elements) and more emotional depth (i.e., poetic, relaxing and thoughtful characteristics).

How cognitive style influences musical preferences

Figure 1. Mean preferences for the MUSIC dimensions by cognitive “brain type.” Greenberg DM, Baron-Cohen S, Stillwell DJ, Kosinski M, Rentfrow PJ (2015). “Musical Preferences are Linked to Cognitive Styles.” PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131151.

On the other hand, people who scored high on systemizing (“type S”) favored intense musical styles with high energy, but these individuals disliked musical styles that were mellow and unpretentious. Those who scored high on systemizing (“type S”) tended to prefer music with high energy (i.e., strong, tense and thrilling features), aspects of positive emotions (i.e., animated and fun characteristics) and more complexity (i.e., cerebral depth).

How cognitive style influences musical preferences

Figure 2. Mean preferences for psychological attributes by cognitive “brain type.” Source: Greenberg DM, Baron-Cohen S, Stillwell DJ, Kosinski M, Rentfrow PJ (2015). “Musical Preferences are Linked to Cognitive Styles.” PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131151.

Based on the study conducted by David Greenberg and his colleagues, it seems that our personality and cognitive style both have an impact on preference for certain types of music. Those who are more empathetic may prefer soft rock, R&B, adult contemporary, country, folk, singer and songwriter, rap, electronic, Latin, acid jazz and Euro pop musical genres, while those who tend to systemize may be more likely to turn on some classic rock, punk, heavy metal or power pop.

Research not only shows that different types of music can evoke different types of neurological stimulation (e.g., classical music can produce comfort and relaxation, while rock music may lead to discomfort), it also shows that people tend to have preferences for certain musical types based on their personality as well as their cognitive style and ability to empathize. Due to the multiple benefits of music in improving various aspects of functioning, including mood, sleep and memory, musical therapy is often incorporated into treatment programs for addiction and mental health.

The Sovereign Health Group recognizes the importance of music in the lives of our patients. After all, the majority of people spend a significant amount of their time listening to music for therapeutic and recreational purposes. Our comprehensive behavioral health treatment services for mental health, substance abuse and co-occurring disorders incorporate music and musical therapy as well as other evidence-based treatments to meet each patient’s specific needs. To find out more about how music is incorporated into the treatment programs offered at Sovereign Health, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.

About the author

Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at