What Your Music Taste Says About How You Think

Researchers at the University of Cambridge studied the music choices of 4,000 participants to distinguish systemic thinkers from empathic ones. What kind of thinker are you?

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

July 24, 2015

6 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: <a href="http://musiciansare.blogspot.com/2014/07/jazz-vs-rock.html#.VbFoAbWQmZY" target="_blank">Guitartricks.com</a> via Musiciansare.blogspot.com)</p>

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Do you like rock or jazz? How about country or pop? Like Donnie and Marie, you might be a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll. How about a different line of questioning?

Within the same big genres, which artists do you like? In rock, do you prefer Billy Joel or AC/DC? In jazz, do you choose Glenn Miller or John Coltrane? Most people would generally accept that the answers to those questions show a lot about your personality. According to a study by professors at the University of Cambridge, these answers show a lot about the way you think as well.

Generally speaking, most of us are either more empathic or more systemic in our thinking. According to the study, "Empathy is the ability to identify, predict, and respond appropriately to the mental states of others. Systemizing is the ability to identify, predict, and respond to the behavior of systems by analyzing the rules that govern them."

Before I go into the study at all, I want to run my own little experiment. Below are three pairs of classic songs. Decide whether you like first or second. If you love or hate them both, still pick one:

Pair One


Pair Two


Pair Three


I'm guessing that the vast majority of you picked the second song in each pairing -- not because any of those songs are necessarily better than the others. They all represent classics of their respective genres. The study suggests that people who think systemically are more likely to pick the second song. And IT folks tend to be systemic thinkers.

The study recruited 4,000 people to take personality quizzes and then listen to samples of music. According to the findings of previous studies, most music can be divided into five basic characteristics, regardless of genre. The University of Cambridge study describes these characteristics like so:

  • Mellow (featuring romantic, relaxing, unaggressive, sad, slow, and quiet attributes, such as in the soft rock, R&B, and adult contemporary genres)

  • Unpretentious (featuring uncomplicated, relaxing, unaggressive, soft, and acoustic attributes, such as in the country, folk, and singer/songwriter genres)

  • Sophisticated (featuring inspiring, intelligent, complex, and dynamic attributes, such as in the classical, operatic, avant-garde, world beat, and traditional jazz genres)

  • Intense (featuring distorted, loud, aggressive, and not relaxing, romantic, nor inspiring attributes, such as in the classic rock, punk, heavy metal, and power pop genres)

  • Contemporary (featuring percussive, electric, and not sad features, such as in the rap, electronica, Latin, acid jazz, and Euro pop genres)

The study showed empathic thinkers were drawn to mellow, unpretentious music. They leaned toward sophisticated music, except in jazz, because sophisticated jazz music tended toward the intense category. Most important, empathic thinkers really hated anything that could be called intense. Systemic thinkers, not surprisingly, were basically the opposite. They found sophisticated, intense, contemporary music to be the most attractive.

[ Of course, we could always scan your brain. Read Geekend: Predicting Your Future By Scanning Your Brain. ]

Of course, there's one problem I see here. With the exception of the incredibly annoying lyrics of Elton John's "Crocodile Rock," I love all of these songs. Granted, I stacked the deck. I didn't pick these songs because of the study. The study tried to find music that no one had heard before. Frankly, that doesn't seem nearly as fun. So, if I like it all, does that make me a genius? Am I both a wonderful empath and brilliant systemic thinker? Probably not.

Most of us like of music across all sorts of genres, styles, and intensities. In fact, the weakness of a study like this is repeatability. Don't we all have music for different moods and needs? If the same people took the same test on different days, they wouldn't give the same answers. There are days when my Spotify is blasting AC/DC, Poison (yes, I am unapologetically a fan of hair metal, deal with it), and Guns N' Roses. There are days where I'm listening to folk and soothing jazz.

Sure, the idea is to look at the kind of music we most often gravitate toward. If you listen most often to intense music, the researchers believe you are a systemic thinker. This sort of pigeonholing runs counter to basic human ways of listening to music. It runs counter to common sense. It might be "right," insofar as the most empathic people I know probably listen less frequently to Rage Against the Machine than others do. But I defy you to think of a band like that as un-empathic.

In fact, I picked Rage Against the Machine for a reason. It is one of the most intense (but empathic) bands out there. And guitarist Tom Morello has a second career as a folk singer. That's right. The man who did this (that's him with the double-necked guitar):

also gave us this:

Of course, anyone can cherry-pick songs across genres and types of music that seem to not fit the mold. This is about large-scale decisions we make over the huge sample size of the music we listen to. Within that range, it is possibly true that the argument is correct. Does anyone's reaction to 50 small music samples tested in the course of one day tell us much of anything about the way they think?

I'd much rather classify the listening habits of people over months and years (something that could be easily doable by partnering with Spotify or Pandora). That kind of sample size would show patterns and preferences indicating a possible correlation between music choices and cognitive styles.

While I may not fully buy the case made by the University of Cambridge study, it is fun to talk about. What do you think? Can music taste tell us how people think? How about my little experiment? Which songs did you pick from the pairs above, and what do you think your choices say about you? Share your results in the comments section below.

About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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