Do you think your music preferences are linked to the way you think? Can skimming your itunes playlist give someone some insight as to how your brain works? A recent study from the University of Cambridge says yes!

This study might have a big impact on how the music business advertises to you. If they know what kind of cognitive style influences your musical choices, they can pinpoint specific angles to sell music tailored for your way of thinking.tumblr_nhjkfsAMnD1tanqhvo1_500

For the study, 4,000 participants were given tests to determine whether they were empathizers (people who are likely to recognize and respond to the thoughts and emotions of others) or systemizers (those more interested in the underlying rules and patterns of the world, such as weather systems, music, or car engines), or a combination of both.

The study found that people who score high on empathy prefer mellow music (R&B, soft rock, adult contemporary genres), unpretentious music (country, folk, singer-songwriter), and contemporary music (electronica, Latin, acid jazz, Euro pop). They did not like intense music such as punk and heavy metal.

Systemizers, on the other hand, love intense music, but don’t like mellow or unpretentious styles.

The same held true within specific genres: empathizers liked mellow or unpretentious jazz, while systemizers preferred the more complex and avant-garde jazz. CBC Music


I know that we all think that our musical preferences are individual and unique. We rarely like the feeling of being stereotyped and categorized by something that we feel we have complete control over. Oddly enough, it is quite predictable.

The researchers also found that those who scored high on empathy preferred music with low energy (gentle, reflective, warm, sensual), negative emotions (sad songs) or emotional depth (poetic, thoughtful).

Systemizers, however, preferred music that was high energy (strong, tense, thrilling), and was associated with positive emotions (animated and fun). They also preferred music that was more cerebral and complex. CBC Music

After reading this, I was shocked. I wanted to think that my music preferences were original and organic. It was scary that they were able to peg my music library based on the way my brain works. I have complete control of what goes into that library, and it feels a tad odd to be judged on my level of empathy based on my love for Jazz standards.tumblr_muttlt7qkv1qazqjro3_r2_500

“Although people’s music choices fluctuates over time, we’ve discovered a person’s empathy levels and thinking style predicts what kind of music they like,” said researcher David Greenberg. “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 than their personality.”

Greenberg, a jazz saxophonist, says the findings could be of great interest to companies that are in the business of predicting people’s musical tastes. CBC Music

To me, this was the scariest part of the article. The feeling of being targeted by a marketing campaign is a bit unnerving. At the same time, why should I be upset if music that I should statistically prefer is being served to me on a platter of advertising paid for by the big music companies? I guess it is the shattering of the illusion of free choice that we have. I would like to think that my music collection is based on my own tastes and musical preferences. How much of that is me, and how much of that is thought up in an office boardroom?


“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,” he says. “By knowing an individual’s thinking style, such services might in future be able to fine tune their music recommendations to an individual.”

“This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self,” adds senior author Jason Rentfrow. “Music is an expression of who we are emotionally, socially, and cognitively.”

So what are the kinds of songs that the two groups tend toward? Here is a sample:

High on empathy:

Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah”

Norah Jones, “Come Away With Me”

Billie Holliday, “All of Me”

Queen, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”

High on systemizing:

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in C

Alexander Scriabin, Etude, Op. 65, No. 3

The Sex Pistols, “God Save The Queen”

Metallica, “Enter Sandman”

CBC Music

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