October 22, 2018

If you ever find yourself listening to your favorite song or radio station and wondering why it’s your favorite, or what it is about a certain band that makes you adore it, or why you are turned off by certain styles of music – you are not alone! Music is undoubtedly an integral part in almost every person’s life, and the reality of musical preferences is very clear. If we recognize that preferences for certain types of music exist, the next logical question is probably going to be: but what drives these preferences? How do they come about? And can you really define their causes?

These are interesting questions with some very interesting answers, but here is a word of warning: most (if not all) studies on this subject are not definitive answers to these questions. They merely give insight into the exploration, aim to provide a basis for theories, and usually lead to even more questions! Over the past few months, I have read a host of scientific studies related to this topic, and I would like to share some of the most interesting findings with you.


Functions of music

It might be helpful think of this exploration at its most basic level: a linear line leading from “certain factors” to musical preference. In this “certain factors” category, we can name a veritable laundry list of things such as social influence, affective experiences, innate auditory preferences, age, characteristics of music, and on and on. My guess is that many people who regularly listen to music could come up with at least 4 or 5 different reasons for why they prefer the music they do.

For two researchers from the Chenmitz University of Technology in Germany, the “certain factor” is the function of preferred music. In one of their studies, they found that the different functions associated with people’s favorite music influences their degree of preference. Simply put, the better the needs of a listener are served by a certain type of music, the higher their degree of preference will be. When 507 German people were studied, the expression of personal identity and values was found to be the function most closely related to music preference. Social functions, such as meeting people and feeling close to others were also important. So were supplying people with information and helping them to identify with the artists.


You might be surprised or confused by these results – I know I was – since you may have expected the most important benefits to be things like enhanced mood, excitement, or relaxation. In fact, these are the functions that are satisfied by people’s preferred music. When asked to rate how much they agreed with different statements about their favorite music, participants tended to answer in this vein. But explaining how your favorite music helps you does not explain why you prefer it over other genres, or even really why you like it. Yes, James’ favorite music, jazz, puts him in a good mood more than it makes him want to dance. But it is his favorite music to listen to because it is a way to express his identity and it brings him together with others. These findings are illustrated in the following figure from the study. The gray bars represent the most important functions of people’s favorite music (like James and his jazz) and the black bars show the relationship between the functions of music and the degree of preference.


It is important to note that almost every study I read dedicated a significant amount of effort into how they might categorize the different genres of music and simplify them. In this case, musical styles were narrowed down to 25 by testing for the “best-known” musical styles. They further categorized these styles by grouping them into 6 genres or “dimensions” 1) sophisticated 2) electronic 3) rock 4) rap 5) pop 6) beat, folk, & and country. A different study that I will discuss below divided genres of music into four “Music-preference dimensions” based off of noticeable factors from a survey. These were 1) Reflective & Complex 2) Intense & Rebellious 3) Upbeat & Conventional 4) Energetic & Rhythmic.




Technology and time

People nowadays have so many different ways to listen to music. You can listen in your car, on your phone, on your computer, literally anywhere you want, at any time. This means that you can listen to that one song that you just have to hear while doing certain activities. Having particular music playing while I run or bike is important, and having a mobile device that can play radio or my personal collection allows me to access that specific music at all times. Even now, I’m using an online streaming service to listen to a playlist of some of my favorite classical pieces to help me concentrate as I write.

A study done on a small group of people by faculty from the School of Psychology at Keele University in the UK found that internet and downloading programs have significantly altered music preference behaviors. We can access any style of music imaginable, allowing us to sample different kinds. We can also acquire music quickly and easily, meaning if I want to hear every single song an artist has ever recorded, I can easily do so (though I probably wouldn’t). People can now listen to music on the internet to affirm the extent of how much they like a song, and can even find any version of a particular song that they prefer.


This study also showed that people tend to report their musical tastes changing over time. I’m sure I am not the only one to have certain tastes when I was younger that I would not proudly flaunt now that I am older. People will go through periods of listening to particular styles and some may even invoke the much-parodied phrase: “I’m really into ____ right now”. In yet another study done by a student at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, it was discovered that music “omnivorousness” (liking a wide variety of music) increases with age up to a certain point, and then begins to level off and eventually decline. So not only are people’s tastes changing as they age, but the amount of different types of music they enjoy changes as well.

According to the Keele University researchers, preference increases with familiarity and decreases with repetition. Participants in their study were found to have developed a means to self-regulate their listening in order to avoid getting sick of something: ceasing to listen to an artist or song for a period of time, or randomizing their listening like “shuffling” a playlist.



The final topic I will cover here is perhaps one of the more popular factors used to try and explain musical preference: personality traits. In a study of undergraduate college students at the University of Texas at Austin, researchers found strong links between music preferences and personality, self-views, and cognitive ability. These factors seem to play an important role in both the formation and maintenance of music preferences. People commonly believe that apart from hobbies and activities, music preferences reveal the most information about their personality, as well as the personalities of others. Using a variety of measures, the researchers collected information about the students to assess their personalities. They identified things like levels of extroversion, agreeableness, social dominance and self-esteem. They studied how certain preference dimensions (aka genres) were positively related to different personality traits. For example, a preference for reflexive and complex music was linked to openness, and emotional stability, while those preferring upbeat and conventional music were more likely to be extroverted and agreeable.


Because people may select music to reinforce their self-views and can use music to make other-directed claims, the researchers included measures of self-views in their study. Basically, someone may choose certain music to alter or maintain how others view them. In order to measure this and connect it with music preferences, students were asked to indicate the extent to which they saw themselves as being politically liberal, wealthy, attractive, etc. By administering an IQ test, the researchers were also able to connect preferences with cognitive ability.  This facet of the research was based on the logic that people tend to prefer music that provides optimal levels of stimulation i.e. complex music can help intelligent people reach their optimal level of stimulation.

The data is presented below in a table taken from the study. It is easy to identify criteria that have strong correlations with certain music-preference dimensions. For further illustration, I pulled the data from the personality criteria measures and created a graph.



There is certainly a lot missing from this investigation – what about explanations having to do with culture, social status, etc. This is a limited scope but I hope it has nonetheless been interesting to discuss several different factors attributable to why we prefer the types of music that we do. One thing that became apparent to me in this process is that attempting to categorize music preferences into neat boxes is a lofty goal, and it is likely a major challenge to study this phenomenon when people are known to prefer numerous types of music. As I mentioned before, our relationship with music is changing with new technology – but one thing will always be true: we like what we like.

Photo: McLane Harrington

McLane Harrington

Office Manager