What does your music taste reveal about how you think?

New research has found that your musical tastes can provide valuable insight into how your brain processes information.

Musical preference has already been linked to characteristics such as age, gender, and personality but now researchers at the University of Cambridge have found that musical taste is also a reflection of whether you are more of an ‘empathiser’ or ‘systemiser’. They define empathisers as those who tend to focus on the mental states and emotions of others, and systemisers as those who analyse rules and patterns in the world.

Whether you are a empathiser or systemiser indicates your ‘brain type’ – whether you approach the world through a more empathising or systemising lens – which, in turn, informs the kind of music that you prefer.

“Although people’s music choices fluctuate over time, we’ve discovered a person’s empathy levels an thinking style predicts what kind of music they like,” David Greenberg, the study’s lead author said. “In fact their cognitive style – whether they’re strong on empathy or strong on systems – can be a better predictor of what music they like that their personality.”

Researchers recruited nearly 4,500 participants through Facebook’s myPersonality app and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Participants filled out psychology-based questionnaires and then listened to and rated 50 pieces of music.

They found that those who scored high on empathy typically preferred music low on arousal – tracks that are gentle, reflective, sensual and warm – that featured ‘sad and depressing’ attributes and displayed ‘emotional depth’. Genre-wise, this means that those kind of people preferred R&B, adult contemporary and soft rock, and had a dislike of ‘intense music’ – punk, heavy metal and hard rock.

On the other end of the spectrum, those showing signs of being a systemiser had a preference for high-energy music – tracks that contain manic, strong, tense and thrilling elements – with ‘animated and fun’ attributes. Generally this meant a preference for intense music such as punk, heavy metal and hard rock.

The researchers were even able to break down users’ preferences into musical elements, finding that empathisers were drawn to music with strings, while systemisers liked music that was dense, loud, fast and featured brass and electric guitar.

Still not sure where you fall? The researchers revealed some of the songs that were high on both empathy and systemising:

High on empathising:

  • Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
  • Come Away With Me – Norah Jones
  • All of Me – Billie Holliday
  • Crazy Little Thing Called Love – Queen

High on systemising:

  • Concerto in C – Antonio Vivaldi
  • Etude Opus 65 No 3 – Alexander Scriabin
  • God Save the Queen – The Sex Pistols
  • Enter the Sandman – Metallica

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