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7/24/2015
09:06 AM
David Wagner
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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?

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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.

(Image: Guitartricks.com via Musiciansare.blogspot.com)

(Image: Guitartricks.com via Musiciansare.blogspot.com)

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

or

Pair Two

or

Pair Three

or

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.

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, ... View Full Bio
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vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
8/5/2015 | 8:22:53 PM
Re: Error: Can not align
btw @Broadway, the very same day we had this conversation, I was listening to NPR on the way home from work and they were featuring Christian McBride, who I actually know and like (Egad, is the song that comes to mind).  They asked him to deliniate the difference between classical music and jazz and his point was jazz doens't care about the technical components of what makes someone a good piano player for instance.  Execution isn't important, but it is the self-expression that makes jazz special.  I thought that was a great way to frame it and why it's hard for me to embrace because I'm all about technical execution (tennis and gymnastics to blame I think!)
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
7/31/2015 | 5:40:53 PM
Re: Error: Can not align
@Broadway - oh yes! I love a good festival! :)  The year I went to Jazz Fest I ended up seeing Bon Jovi (who was also part of my first concert along with Ratt, who was the headliner! in 1984 lol).   I kept thinking, am I at the right fest?

I do appreciate all kinds of music, but my heart belongs to classic rock - The Doors are my all-time favorite.  Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Rush :) but NOT Pink Floyd or Rolling Stones...not sure why, I don't hate them but I don't like them as much.

Then there's 80s music and I'm all over the board with that: Journey, Blondie, The Cure, The Cult, The Call, Missing Persons, Wham! :)  I love all 80s one-hit wonders.  Once the 90s hit - it was all MEH as far as I was concerned in comparison.

And what's your pleasure Broadway?  I'd also love to hear from the other folks on the [email protected]???

I used "Help me, help you" in a presentation to the firm the other day, with Video Clip and all...
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
7/31/2015 | 4:56:08 PM
Re: Error: Can not align
vnewman, I won't hold it against you. I am impressed that you dared to go to Jazz Fest and you don't like jazz --- though of course there's a ton of other music there going on besides jazz. But I am curious what sort of music you listen to to get inspired, pumped up, etc. Do tell!

As for Jerry Maguire, it is the scene after the lame dude gives him the mix tape, when Jerry and his lady try to listen to it, then crack up laughing at it. It's a moment of bonding --- making fun of someone else. Nice movie! Classic lines though. I still use "Help me help you" to this day.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
7/31/2015 | 4:53:12 PM
Re: Error: Can not align
I am far from a jazz expert, but I'd be glad to participate in a Jazz 101 teaching assignment! I am not a fan of experimental acid beebop, where there is no melody or rhythm or rhyme to it. I like the classic stuff --- sans vocalist --- of the 50 and 60s --- and I like Dixieland and big brass band jazz. I can listen to that stuff all day long live, especially in the sun in New Orleans with several cold beverages in hand.
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
7/31/2015 | 2:30:19 PM
Re: Error: Can not align
@David - ahhhhh yes.  Singers.  Singers in "jazz" are key for me.  This is what brings it all together in my eyes.  

I'm open to a jazz 101 class :) - perhaps it could be a Geekend topic????
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
7/31/2015 | 2:24:11 PM
Re: Error: Can not align
@Broadway - Yes I like big band jazz - Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, etc.  Classic New Orleans Jazz - well, I've been to jazz fest and seen the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Rebirth...a few others as well...and although it was fun while I was there in person, I wouldn't buy a CD to listen to at my leisure.  There's just too much going on at once for me.  Don't be mad at me :)

By the way, I don't know what scene you are referencing in Jerry Maguire - is it the one where the guy gives him the Miles Davis and John Coltrane tape?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/31/2015 | 1:14:50 PM
Re: Error: Can not align
@Broadway0474- Ha! I wondered when someone would start the "I don't like x" conversation and someone would defend x. I agree about jazz being a lot of things. I got into jazz through big band 30's and 40's music. Actually i got into it probably the way most people my age did-- through liking the Christmas music of the era. And then catches some old movies and eventually I just started digging the music. It was the gateway into other forms of jazz.

I'm no jazz expert, but I like all forms of jazz now. My biggest problem with jazz is that it is important for me to have a singer in my music. Don't know why. but i don't like instrumental music. So for me, that shuts down some of the most famous jazz recordings in the world. But there's a enough jazz with vocalists out there to keep me busy. 

I think vnewmans2 should let us teach her how to like jazz. :)
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
7/31/2015 | 9:23:44 AM
song by song
THat was a fun little experiment. But I agree that music preference changes with mood. If I need to relax I'm choosing different music than if I want to get jazzed up for a workout or long drive. Granted that relaxing music is probably Miles Davis or John Coltraine. And I'd be listening to crocodile rock if the kids are in the car and Ac/Dc if they aren't. It's one more thing to help you find out more about people and their personalities, but i'm not sure how well it holds up on a song by song basis.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2015 | 11:02:59 PM
Re: Error: Can not align
vnewman, do you like big band jazz? Classic New Orleans jazz? I can understand how beebop would hurt your head. But some kinds of jazz are quite linear, despite the long moments of improvisation. How about brass band jazz? You're hurting my feelings. I feel like when I watch that Tom Cruise movie when he was the sports agent and spend half the movie bashing jazz.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/30/2015 | 7:41:43 PM
Re: why labeling everything?
@GAProgrammer- As far as I'm concerned everyone who reads IWeek is a special snowflake. :)
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