What your Spotify playlists say about your brain functions

Musical taste is subjective, and while it pains me to say it, your love of Miley Cyrus is every bit as valid as my enthusiasm for The Magnetic Fields. Even if you are completely wrong.

What your Spotify playlists say about your brain functions

But musical taste may be a little more hard-wired than we first thought, a new study from the University of Cambridge suggests. Drawing over 4,000 participants from the myPersonality Facebook app, PhD student David Greenberg discovered that a participant’s cognitive style was actually a better predictor of musical preference than their personality.

“Cognitive style was actually a better predictor of musical preference than their personality.”

The researchers compared participants with high levels of empathy (a style of thinking defined by recognising and reacting to the thoughts and feelings of others) against those who scored highly for ‘systemising’ (thinkers characterised by understanding surroundings based on the rules governing them – whether it’s electronics or music.)

Those with high empathetic traits showed a preference for “mellow music” (soft rock, R&B, adult contemporary), “unpretentious music” (country, folk, singer/songwriters) and “contemporary music” (electronica, acid jazz, europop). These were all disliked by the systemisers, who were more into “intense music” like punk and heavy metal.

Interestingly, this applied within genres too. Take jazz, for example: the researchers found that empathisers liked their jazz smooth and mellow, while the systemisers liked theirs to be intense and sophisticated.guitar

Looking hard at the data, the researchers realised that in general, those who scored strongly on empathy liked their music to be low energy and to contain negative emotions or strong emotional depth. The systemisers, on the other hand, were all about high-energy, positive music with elements of cerebral depth and complexity.

If you’re making a mixtape for systemisers, the researchers reckon that “God save the Queen by The Sex Pistols and “Enter Sandman by Metallica are winners, while empathisers can’t get enough “Hallelujah” (the Jeff Buckley cover, rather than the Leonard Cohen original) and “Crazy little thing called love”, by Queen.

There are two things you can take from this research, and ironically your take-home will probably depend on whether you’re an empathiser or a systemiser.

Senior author on the study Dr Jason Rentfrow represents the empathisers when he says, “This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self. Music is an expression of who we are emotionally, socially and cognitively.”

“Ironically your take-home from this study will probably depend on whether you’re an empathiser or a systemiser.”

Meanwhile, in the cold, analytical light of day, Greenberg speaks for all the systemisers when he talks of the research’s potential value for the music industry’s algorithms: “A lot of money is put into algorithms to choose what music you may want to listen to, for example on Spotify and Apple Music. By knowing an individual’s thinking style, such services might in future be able to fine-tune their music recommendations to an individual.”

Personally I prefer Rentfrow’s take on the world, but as a Magnetic Fields fan, I was always bound to, wasn’t I?

Images: Pascal and Photo4jenifer used under Creative Commons.

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