Your Musical Taste Depends On How Empathetic You Are


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

831 Your Musical Taste Depends On How Empathetic You Are
The Rolling Stones performing in Milwaukee, U.S. in 2015. Jim Pietryga/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 3.0

Do you care more for rules and order, or do you prefer thoughts and emotions? Depending on how you answer this, a group of psychologists at the University of Cambridge will tell you that this is linked to your taste in music.

As reported by their recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE, those who are better at understanding the feelings of others prefer romantic, relaxing music like soft rock and some R&B, whereas those who focus on the minute details of things tend to listen to more technically complex music, such as traditional jazz. If you're curious as to which side of the cognitive fence you fall on, don't fret: head along to Musical Universe, an online quiz developed by the researchers, to find out.




If you like music similar to this, you're probably an empathizer.

There’s no doubt that music and the way we think and behave are inextricably linked. Last year, research revealed that practicing music makes communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain stronger and more efficient. This new study is part of an ongoing effort to understand the psychology of music preference, and focuses on whether being more empathetic or more focused on logic and reason could have an effect on musical taste.


A team of psychologists led by David Greenberg, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, recruited over 4,000 participants and asked them detailed questions about their thinking styles. They were then queried on their musical preferences, with 50 musical excerpts from a wide range of genres provided to help determine this.

Music type preferences for empathizers (Type E), systemizers, (Type S), and those who are balanced (Type B). The more positive the score, the greater the preference. Greenberg et al./PLOS ONE

Empathizers tended to prefer mellow, sensual, reflective music with emotional depth, such as “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones. Soft rock and singer-songwriters tend to produce this type of music.

On the other hand, the logic-oriented “systemizers” preferred quite intense, manic music, which includes the punk rock track “God Save The Queen” by the Sex Pistols; heavy rock and classical tracks were also often chosen as favorable by systemizers.


It appeared that empathizers preferred the rush of emotions, positive or negative, associated with certain types of music. The authors go on to suggest that those lacking in empathy – psychopaths, for example – could perhaps improve their empathy quotient by listening to more emotionally-layered music. Although this link isn’t demonstrated in their study, its possible existence could form the basis of future research.

Conversely, systemizers seemed to enjoy acknowledging and picking apart the complex instrumentation of other types of music. “It’s almost like a musical puzzle that they’re putting together,” Greenberg told CNN. It’s possible to be a mix of both thinking styles, of course, which would make you “balanced.”




Prefer this over music like Jeff Buckley? You may just be a systemizer.

As revealed by an accompanying study, someone’s “openness to experiences,” one of the Big Five personality traits identified by psychologists, also strongly affects the level of musical sophistication of a person, more than any of the other traits. Sophistication, in this case, means the ability to deconstruct, remember, and perform musically.

Those who are imaginative, have multiple diverse interests, and are open to change have greater levels of musical sophistication than those who are more conventional and routine-oriented. Remarkably, this applies whether you are a practicing musician or not, meaning you could have a talent for music without even realizing it.


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  • music,

  • psychology,

  • empathy,

  • taste,

  • logic,

  • preference,

  • personality,

  • style,

  • systemizing,

  • empathizing,

  • sophistication