Amanda Rorabaugh

Freshman Economics major

Scrolling through your iTunes Library may be just as reflective an experience as flipping through a diary.  Every individual person has an individual taste in music.  While country music may make one person cringe, it may bring the fondest of memories to mind for another.  The pop music blasting downtown may be the highlight of the night for your friend, while you considered staying home just to avoid it.  While the exact reasons why different people have different tastes in music are not completely clear, the reasons why each person’s favorite type of music brings him or her joy and reflects his or her own personality is more evident.

Photo credit: Connor Hartzell
Photo credit: Connor Hartzell

In 2001, a study conducted at McGill University monitored brain activity of individuals when listening to music.  During listeners’ self-reported favorite moments of the songs, the brain released dopamine, a hormone which causes people to experience pleasure and enjoyment.  Furthermore, an additional part of the brain released dopamine right before said favorite moments in anticipation.  However, this does not only occur with music familiar to us.  The same study found that when listening to unfamiliar music, the brain attempts to pick out patterns in the song in order to anticipate peak moments that may later occur.  In doing this, the brain can achieve the same anticipatory release of dopamine from an unfamiliar song as that from a familiar one.

The natural desire to find such patterns in music is what makes repetitive, pop music more agreeable among more people than other genres.  On the other side of the spectrum, jazz is a more acquired taste, as the more complex rhythmic and chordal are difficult to predict.  However, a listener can become attracted to the unpredictability itself.  While a jazz piece may take more time to learn to appreciate, the brain does not tire of it as quickly as it does of pop songs, as the repetitiveness of a pop song can cause it to lose its original impact.

A later study in 2003 by Rentfrow and Gosling sought to discover why not all people like the same music.  It was hypothesized that people enjoy music that seems to relate to their own cultural environments and personalities.  After completing a series of surveys that reflected both personality traits and musical preferences, Rentfrow and Gosling managed to group eighty different music genres into four factors:  “Reflective and Complex,” “Intense and Rebellious,” “Upbeat and Conventional,” and “Energetic and Rhythmic.”  These factors showed high correlation, between .77 and .82, with certain personality traits.  For example, those who enjoy “Reflective and Complex” music (including jazz, folk, and classical genres) tend to be adventurous, smart, and politically liberal.  Those who enjoy “Upbeat and Conventional” music (including country, pop, and religious genres) tend to be extroverted, athletic and politically conservative.  Listeners of “Intense and Rebellious” music (including rock, alternative, and metal) tend to be extroverted and oriented to desire social dominance, and those who enjoy “Energetic and Rhythmic” music (including rap and soul) tend to be more agreeable, athletic and politically liberal.

To quote the English composer Frederick Delius, “Music is an outburst of the soul.”  A person’s entire “soul” or personality profile may not be captured in one specific genre of music.  However, when we create playlists of our favorite music, we manage to capture inexplicable emotions and experiences through song.  Science may never be able to fully explain how or why this is possible.  But, when somebody becomes lost in his or her own world through music, whether it be sitting at home listening to an iPod through a pair of headphones or standing front and center at a concert, the experience itself is all the proof needed to understand the connection between music and the core personality of an individual.