What your music choice says about your personality

14 mins read

We all have different tastes of music, whether it’s pop, rock, hip hop or classical.

But a new study suggests that what we listen to actually says a lot about our personality — and it’s replicated the world over.

Researchers led by the University of Cambridge found that Ed Sheeran’s song Shivers is as likely to appeal to extroverts in the UK as those living in Argentina or India.

Those with neurotic traits in the US are also just as likely to be into Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit as people with a similar personality living in Denmark or South Africa. 

Agreeable people the world over will tend to like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, or Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s Shallow, the study found.

But it does not matter where a conscientious person lives, they are unlikely to enjoy Rage Against the Machine.  

Music choice: Researchers led by the University of Cambridge found that Ed Sheeran's song Shivers is as likely to appeal to extroverts in the UK as those living in Argentina or India

Music choice: Researchers led by the University of Cambridge found that Ed Sheeran’s song Shivers is as likely to appeal to extroverts in the UK as those living in Argentina or India


The ‘Big Five’ personality traits are openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

The Big Five personality framework theory uses these descriptors to outline the broad dimensions of people’s personality and psyche.

Beneath each broad category is a number of correlated and specific factors.

Here are the five main points: 

Openness – this is about having an appreciation for emotion, adventure and unusual ideas.

People who are generally open have a higher degree of intellectual curiosity and creativity.

They are also more unpredictable and likely to be involved in risky behaviour such as drug taking.

Conscientiousness – people who are conscientiousness are more likely to be organised and dependable.

These people are self-disciplined and act dutifully, preferring planned as opposed to spontaneous behaviour.

They can sometimes be stubborn and obsessive.

Extroversion – these people tend to seek stimulation in the company of others and are energetic, positive and assertive.

They can sometimes be attention-seeking and domineering.

Individuals with lower extroversion are reserved, and can be seen as aloof or self-absorbed.

Agreeableness – these individuals have a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative as opposed to antagonistic towards other people.

Sometimes people who are highly agreeable are seen as naive or submissive.

People who have lower levels of agreeableness are competitive or challenging.

Neuroticism – People with high levels of neuroticism are prone to psychological stress and get angry, anxious and depressed easily.

More stable people are calmer but can sometimes be seen as uninspiring and unconcerned.

Individuals with higher neuroticism tend to have worse psychological well-being.

These are the findings of new research led by Dr David Greenberg, an honorary research associate at the University of Cambridge. 

It involved more than 350,000 people from over 50 countries and found that links between musical preferences and personality are universal. 

Worldwide, the researchers found the same associations between extroversion and contemporary music; between conscientiousness and unpretentious music; between agreeableness and mellow and unpretentious music; and between openness and mellow, contemporary, intense and sophisticated music.  

Greenberg, who is also a musician, said: ‘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.’

The study explains why personality traits are linked to musical styles.   

Researchers correctly predicted that extroversion, which is defined by excitement-seeking, sociability, and positive emotions, would be associated with contemporary music that has upbeat, positive, and danceable features. 

Similarly, they were not surprised to find that conscientiousness, which is associated with order and obedience, clashed with intense musical styles, which is characterised by aggressiveness and rebellious themes.

But one discovery was slightly puzzling. 

Greenberg said: ‘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.

‘That was surprising but people use music in different ways — some might use it for catharsis, others to change their mood.’

He added: ‘So there may be subgroups who score high on neuroticism who listen to mellow music for one reason and another subgroup which is more frustrated and perhaps prefer intense music to let off steam.

‘We’ll be looking into that in more detail.’

The researchers also found that the link between extroverts and contemporary music was particularly strong around the equator, especially in Central and South America. 

They said this could suggest that climatic factors influence musical preferences and that people in warmer climates tend to have personality traits which make them more likely to prefer rhythmic, danceable music. 

Greenberg and his colleagues used two different musical preference assessment methods to assess an unprecedented number of participants living on six continents. 

The first required people to self-report the extent to which they liked listening to 23 genres of music as well as completing a personality test and providing demographic information. 

The second used a more advanced approach and asked participants to listen to short audio clips from 16 genres and subgenres of Western music and then give their reactions to each.

Those with neurotic traits in the US are also just as likely to be into Nirvana's Smells like Teen Spirit as people with a similar personality living in Denmark or South Africa

Those with neurotic traits in the US are also just as likely to be into Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit as people with a similar personality living in Denmark or South Africa

Agreeable people the world over will tend to like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On

Agreeable people the world over will tend to like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On

The researchers said they focused on Western music because it is the most listened to globally and offers the strongest potential to be applied in real-world and therapeutic settings. 

They used the MUSIC model, a widely accepted framework for conceptualising musical preferences, which identifies five key musical styles: 

  • ‘Mellow’ (featuring romantic, slow, and quiet attributes as heard in soft rock, R&B, and adult contemporary genres)
  • ‘Unpretentious’ (uncomplicated, relaxing, and unaggressive attributes as heard in country genres);
  • ‘Sophisticated’ (inspiring, complex, and dynamic features as heard in classical, operatic, avant-garde, and traditional jazz genres);
  • ‘Intense’ (distorted, loud, and aggressive attributes as heard in classic rock, punk, heavy metal, and power pop genres);
  • ‘Contemporary’ (rhythmic, upbeat, and electronic attributes as heard in the rap, electronica, Latin, and Euro-pop genres). 

For thousands of years humans have broadcast sounds to other groups to establish if they have similar values, whether they could share resources or if they are about to fight. 

Today, people are using music as a way to signal their personality and so, the study argues, there is potential to use music to address social division.

Greenberg, who lives in Jerusalem, already employs music as a bridge to work with Israelis and Palestinians.

He also believes that the findings could improve music streaming services and support wellbeing apps.

‘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,’ Greenberg said.

He stressed that the aim of the study was not to pigeonhole music-lovers.

‘Musical preferences do shift and change, they are not set in stone,’ Greenberg said.

‘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.’

Greenberg thinks that future research could combine streaming data with electroencephalogram (EEG) hyperscanning technologies to establish a more nuanced understanding of the biological and cultural factors that contribute to our musical preferences and responses. 

He also says that future research should test the links between music and personality in real-world settings to see how music can be a bridge between people from different cultures around the globe.

The study has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


Take this test to reveal what categories of music you score highly for then read the descriptions below 

Mellow music is defined as romantic, relaxing, friendly, sad, slow, and quiet; often heard in genres of soft rock, R & B, and adult contemporary.

People who have a well-developed ability to understand thoughts and feelings in themselves and others, so-called ’empathisers’, prefer mellow music that evokes deep emotion. 

Unpretentious music is defined as uncomplicated, relaxing, unaggressive, soft, and acoustic, and primarily from the country, folk, and singer/songwriter music genres.

Fans of upbeat music like country, pop and soundtracks tend to have low scores for openness to experience and intelligence. 

They are more likely to be agreeable, extroverted and conscientious and see themselves as attractive, wealthy, athletic and politically conservative.

Sophisticated music is defined as inspiring, intelligent, complex, and dynamic, and were from the classical, operatic, avant-garde, world beat, and traditional jazz music genres.

People who prefer reflective and complex music like blues, classical and jazz score highly on openness to experience, and see themselves as politically liberal, intelligent and not very athletic. 

Intense music is defined as distorted, loud, aggressive, and not relaxing, romantic, nor inspiring, and were from the classic rock, punk, heavy metal, and power pop music genres.

People who can identify patterns and systems, known as ‘systemisers’, prefer intense music that forms complex sounds.  Systemisers are people who are logical, analytical and objective.

Contemporary music is defined a percussive, electric, and not sad, and from the rap, electronica, Latin, acid jazz, and Euro pop music genres.

People who prefer energetic and rhythmic music were also extroverted, agreeable, attractive and athletic, but they did not share the political inclination, wealth or lower intelligence scores as lovers of upbeat music.

Source: Musical Universe Project and Short Test Of Musical Preferences


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