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Your music taste might reveal how your brain works

Do you like the sweet sounds of Billie Holiday or the hard edge of Metallica? A new study from the University of Cambridge says your choice shows whether you're an empathetic or systematic thinker.

Danny Gallagher
CNET freelancer Danny Gallagher has contributed to Cracked.com, Mental Floss, Maxim, Break.com, Mandatory, Jackbox Games, Geeks Who Drink and many, many other publications in his never-ending quest to bring the world's productivity to a screeching halt. He lives and works in Dallas. Email Danny.
Danny Gallagher
3 min read

What's in your iPod? PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

Now that music has gone digital, there must be all sorts of algorithms and marketing studies out there that recording companies and music delivery services use to determine the types of tunes fans are most likely to consume.

The songs that you choose to put on your mobile device may say a lot to marketing executives, but they might also say a lot about your brain and personality. Researchers from the University of Cambridge, led by Ph.D. student David Greenberg, may have come up with a way to determine how people think based on their musical preferences, using studies of over 4,000 participants, according to a statement from the university.

The psychologists who oversaw the study published a paper of their findings on Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

The study sought out music fans through a Facebook personality test app called myPersonality. They gave each participant a questionnaire that measured certain personality traits using an assessment called the Revised NEO Personality Inventory that looks at personalities along with five traits including neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness, according to the study.

Then sometime later, the participants received a second survey about their musical preferences. Each participant rated 15-second song excerpts from 50 different songs that represented 26 different genres and subgenres of music, according to the study.

Researchers compared the results from both studies to determine if they exhibited any patterns across the participant pool. The study says that those with a more empathetic nature enjoy genres of music that are more mellow, such as R&B and soft rock, "unpretentious" such as country and folk, and contemporary such as acid jazz and Euro pop. Those with a more "systematic" way of thinking who focus more on structure and rules in their thought patterns enjoy music that's more intense.

As the researchers dug a little deeper into the data, they came up with some more interesting findings about people's music preferences. The people from the empathy group also enjoy listening to music that exhibits less energy, more emotional depth and negative emotions such as sadness or depression. The music of the systematic thinkers are almost the opposite. They enjoy songs with more energy, positive emotions and "a high degree of cerebral depth and complexity," according to the statement.

Researchers also came up with a short list of popular rock, jazz and classical songs that fall in line with their study's results. The statement says that if you like Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me," Billie Holliday's "All of Me" and Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," you probably have more empathy. If you prefer listening to Antonio Vivaldi's "Concerto in C," The Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" and Metallica's "Enter Sandman," then you're probably more of a systematic thinker.

The researchers who organized the study said these results can not only show music fans what the songs on their iTunes playlists say about them but it could also help recording and music distribution companies find ways to better target their audiences.

"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," David Greenberg, the psychology Ph.D. candidate from the University of Cambridge, said in the statement. "By knowing an individual's thinking style, such services might in the future be able to fine-tune their music recommendations to an individual."

The songs on our iPods may not only be able to tell others about how we think but also affect the way we perceive the people around us. A study published in 2009 in the journal Neuroscience Letters found that listening to happy and sad songs could change the way that people read other people's faces. Researchers had participants listen to happy and sad songs and asked them to rate the emotional status of people's faces. The study says that those who listened to happier tunes were more able to identify happy faces and those who listened to sad songs could better pick out people who were feeling more down in the dumps.

Unfortunately, neither study could tell us if people who listen to Nickelback were brain-dead.