Medical Mysteries of Music

This global study looks at what our music tastes say about us

Most of us would probably like to believe that we project something of ourselves to the universe when it comes to our tastes in music. It might, but not necessarily in the ways, we thought.

A study of 350,000 people from 50 countries conducted by the University of Cambridge and using just Western music because it has the greatest reach around the world. They were asked about how they felt about songs from 16 to 23 different genres (there were two sections to the survey). They also took a personality assessment test.

They were asked to evaluate these tunes using the MUSIC test which helps people categorize the music in terms of preference. I quote from the study:

  • 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)

When all the dust cleared, the researchers found that they could be slotted into one of three categories: neurotic, open, and agreeable. And it turns out that these traits know no borders and that we have more in common with people in far-flung countries than we may have thought.

Here are the topline conclusions:

Ed Sheeran’s song Shivers is as likely to appeal to extraverts [extroverts] living in the UK as those living in Argentina or India.

Those with neurotic traits in the US are 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.

National borders cannot stop open people from replaying David Bowie’s Space Oddity or Nina Simone.

It does not matter where a conscientious person lives, they are unlikely to enjoy Rage Against the Machine …

They continue:

Across the world, without significant variation, the researchers found the same positive correlations between extraversion and contemporary music; between conscientiousness and unpretentious music; between agreeableness and mellow and unpretentious music; and between openness and mellowcontemporaryintense and sophisticated music.

And then there’s this from Dr. David Greenberg, who was part of the study.

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 music could be a very powerful bridge.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38519 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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