Music plays an important role in our lives, but have you ever wondered what your musical tastes say about you? Well, new research has suggested a potential link between the music we listen to and our moral compass.
Music is one of the most fundamental forms of expression. As Victor Hugo, the French politician and writer, once said “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent”.
Regardless of whether we have any musical talent of our own, the nature of our musical tastes says a lot about us. Previous research has shown that music can influence our emotions, cognitive performance, creativity, and mental flexibility. Assessing our favorite songs and artists may even provide insights into our levels of empathy and our personality needs and can help us express our values.
But despite our understanding of these connections, less attention has been paid to the relationship between our musical tastes and moral values. This was the inspiration for researchers from Queen Mary University, London, and the ISI Foundation in Turin, Italy, who set out to investigate the complex interplay between music and morality.
"Our study provides compelling evidence that music preferences can serve as a window into an individual's moral values," Dr Charalampos Saitis, one of the senior authors of the study and Lecturer in Digital Music Processing at Queen Mary University of London’s School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, said in a statement.
The study examined existing data from 1,480 participants, collected via the LikeYouth surveying tool, who completed psychometric questionnaires concerning their moral values, and then looked at artists that participants had liked on Facebook. As the authors write, "We presumed that if a user liked the Page of a specific artist on Facebook, then that artist’s most famous songs reflect the user’s music preferences," which may affect the accuracy of their findings.
The team then extracted and analyzed acoustic and lyrical features from the top five songs of each participant’s preferred artists.
The team then used machine learning algorithms to analyze the extracted features and to predict participants’ moral values. "For this work, we operationalise moral values via the Moral Foundations Theory (MFT)," they write, "which describes the psychological ground of morality in terms of five innate foundations, formed by a two-faced scope between so-called virtues and vices. These foundations are Care/ Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Purity/Degradation."
The MFT has been widely used by psychologists to measure morality since its invention in 2004. It has become pretty influential, though it is not without its detractors who see it as missing key moral domains, such as altruism, and having some empirical problems.
They used text processing techniques, including lexicon-based methods and Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT)-based embeddings, to analyze narrative, moral values, sentiment, and emotional loading in the lyrics. In addition, low- and high-level audio features provided via Spotify’s API were used to assess encoded information in musical choices, which helped enhance moral inferences.
The results showed that both lyrical and audio features were better than basic demographic information for predicting a person’s moral compass. Interestingly, elements like pitch and timbre served as crucial predictors for values of Care and Fairness, whereas sentiments and emotions expressed in lyrics were more effective in predicting Loyalty, Authority, and Purity.
"Our findings reveal that music is not merely a source of entertainment or aesthetic pleasure; it is also a powerful medium that reflects and shapes our moral sensibilities," Vjosa Preniqi, lead author of the study and a PhD student in Queen Mary explained. "By understanding this connection, we can open up new avenues for music-based interventions that promote positive moral development."
These findings have implications that extend beyond academic curiosity. They could impact how we engage with and use music in different aspects of life.
“Our breakthrough can pave the way for applications ranging from personalized music experiences to innovative music therapy and communication campaigns,” commented Dr Kyriaki Kalimeri, senior co-author of the study and researcher at ISI Foundation.
"Our research has uncovered an important link between music and morality, paving the way for a deeper understanding of the psychological dimensions of our musical experiences," concluded Vjosa Preniqi. "We are excited to continue exploring this rich and uncharted territory."
The study is published in the journal PLOS One.