Musical preferences could be used to bridge social division - study

"Music helps people to understand one another and find common ground,” according to the study.

  (photo credit: FLICKR)
(photo credit: FLICKR)

Musical preferences may have the potential to unite personalities of people around the world, according to a new study led by Dr. David Greenberg, an honorary research associate at the University of Cambridge, a postdoctoral scholar at Bar-Ilan University, and saxophonist. Music has been used as a means of communication for thousands of years, and Dr. Greenberg hopes his findings will take this a step further and help humanity to bridge social division.

The peer-reviewed study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, included over 350,000 participants from over 50 countries. It determined positive correlations between musical preference and personality are universal - extraverted people in Denmark tend to enjoy the same styles of contemporary music as extraverted people in France, the UK or India. Agreeable people from Argentina enjoy the same mellow music as those in South Africa. 

Characteristics of various personality traits such as extraversion and conscientiousness were defined by the researchers and then used to predict which styles of music a participant was most likely to enjoy. For example, extraversion was considered to be defined through attitudes of excitement seeking and sociability. Extraverted people tended to enjoy upbeat, danceable music. 

Dr. Greenberg explained: “We were surprised at just how much these patterns between music and personality replicated across the globe. People may be divided by geography, language and culture, but if an introvert in one part of the world likes the same music as introverts elsewhere, that suggests that music could be a very powerful bridge. Music helps people to understand one another and find common ground.”

While most of their predictions were accurate, one result surprised Greenberg and his team. “We thought that neuroticism would have likely gone one of two ways, either preferring sad music to express their loneliness or preferring upbeat music to shift their mood. Actually, on average, they seem to prefer more intense musical styles, which perhaps reflects inner angst and frustration," he said. 

To complete the study, two different musical preference assessment methods were administered to participants: one involved participants self-reporting on the extent to which they enjoyed any of 23 genres listed alongside a Ten-Item Personality Inventory survey, and one where participants were given audio clips spanning 16 genres of music to listen to and asked to respond with their preferences. The website is still up and running for the public interested in taking the evaluation here.  

He elaborated on how music can be used as a means of bonding between people in cultures in a recent TED Talk in Ramat Aviv.

Another finding that stood out was that the extraversion as a personality trait and a preference for contemporary music were strongly correlated in countries closest to the equator, raising the question of whether other factors, such as climate, may have some influence over the personality traits of those people living in these counties.

He elaborated further on a current issue and how music consumption should be reconsidered given the study's findings: “If people who score high for neuroticism, for example, are being fed more intense music and they're already feeling stressed and frustrated, is that helping with their anxiety or is it just reinforcing and perpetuating? These are the questions we now need to answer.”

“Musical preferences do shift and change, they are not set in stone. And we are not suggesting that someone is just extroverted or just open, we all have combinations of personality traits and combinations of musical preferences of varying strengths. Our findings are based on averages and we have to start somewhere to begin to see and understand connections.”