Psychologists divide music lovers between empathizers and systemizers
The music you like may be a result of the way your brain is wired
You’re at a heavy metal concert. An electric guitarist grinds out the final chords of a loud, aggressive solo and smashes the guitar. Are you thinking, “That was epic!”? Or are you just glad the music finally stopped?
Or picture yourself at a coffeehouse as an acoustic guitarist strums note after relaxing note. Are you feeling warm and happy? Or do you just want to rip the strings right out of that folksy guitar?
Whichever one is you, psychologists have found that your taste in music says a lot about your personality.
“People who are high on empathy may be preferring a certain type of music compared to people who are more systematic,” said David Greenberg, a University of Cambridge psychologist.
Greenberg has quizzed thousands of people, first giving them a written test to analyze their personalities and then finding out what types of music they prefer.
He found a correlation: Those who have a well-developed ability to understand thoughts and feelings in themselves and others – so-called “empathizers” – tend to prefer mellow music that evokes deep emotion.
But the world is full of underlying patterns and systems, and those who can more easily identify these connections are “systemizers.” Greenberg’s research shows they prefer intense music that forms complex sounds.
The theory, he said, is that empathizers are interested in music’s emotional qualities and how it makes them feel, whereas systemizers are more intrigued by its structural qualities.
“They are focusing more on the instrumental elements, seeing how the music is mixing together,” Greenberg said. “It’s almost like a musical puzzle that they’re putting together.”
Music taste reflects personality
Systemizers lean toward jobs in math and science: the meteorologist who rapidly deciphers emerging weather patterns, the geologist who untangles eons of mystery about how a mountain formed.
Empathizers tend to be good listeners. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Systemizers can have an average or even high ability to do this, too – they don’t lack empathy per se – but their systemizing abilities are even greater, Greenberg said.
He found people who like both mellow music and intense music score about the same in empathizing and systemizing tests, indicating a “balanced” thinking style.
“We are seeking music that reflects who we are, so that includes personality, that includes the way we think, and it may even be the way our brain is wired,” Greenberg says.
One hypothesis: Listening to mellow music can make us feel sad, so our brain may release a pleasing hormone to soothe us – and empathizers may get a bigger dose, since the region of their brain responsible for regulating the chemical’s release is larger. Systemizers’ brains are bigger in regions responsible for recognizing patterns, so when they hear intense or highly structured music they may prefer it for its complexity.
Test your taste in music
Are you an empathizer or a systemizer? Or you could be balanced. Take our music quiz to find out.
About the songs
Greenberg and his team of psychologists found empathizers prefer music that inspires strong feelings, often sadness, such as Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” These songs often feature themes of love, loss, relationships, heartbreak and nostalgia. Not only are the lyrics to Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” about melancholia and loss, but the song is also in a minor key that’s typically associated with sad feelings. Neil Young’s “Philadelphia” is about brotherly love and loss. The chorus of Adele’s “Hello” is about the desire to communicate regret and sorrow. Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” is also in a minor key and is about remembering a lost loved one through a sweet but sorrowful song.
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Greenberg’s team found systemizers prefer music that tends to be more energetic, often eliciting joy or even anger through charged lyrics and intricate patterns of notes. Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” is about finding happiness with a woman. Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade” are aggressive songs about rebellion. “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses is an exhilarating rock anthem about the temptation of drugs. “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones is an animated, joy-inducing song written in a major key that’s often associated with more positive emotions.
Balanced music lovers tend to prefer songs across the spectrum.
CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen contributed to this report.