The way these guys think says a lot about the music they like. (Touchstone Pictures)
That old adage from Nick Hornby’s musical novel High Fidelity (also a super-angsty movie starring John Cusack) just may be true after all: what you like is what you’re like. While his character, Rob, says that line in reference to his own judgement of others based on their musical taste, a group of researchers found that the opposite is true. Apparently, there is a positive correlation between empathy levels and taste in music.
In a recent paper, Musical Preferences are Linked to Cognitive Styles, Dr. David M. Greenberg and his co-authors break down the preference differences between empathetic and systemizing cognitive styles, or “thinking styles.” To understand these two distinct types of people, Greenberg tells us to imagine two people are standing on top of a mountain with a stunning view. The one who is awed by the view and discusses the beauty of their surroundings is empathetic. The person who discusses the tectonic plates they are on and how long the mountains have been there is called a systemizer.
To those ends, if you want to intuit what kind of music a person will have an appreciation for, look no further than the Emotional Quotient (EQ) test. The researches found that scoring high on the EQ test had a positive correlation to a preference for music on “the Mellow dimension,” which they quantify as the “R&B/soul, adult contemporary, soft rock genres.” Empathetics also have a preference for music that is low arousal, with gentle and warm attributes; more depressing and sad music; and, with emotional depth, on the more poetic and thoughtful end of the scale.
If you enjoy Adele and have been bumping the new Erykah Badu mixtape, you are probably going to find you score high on the EQ test.
On the other hand, those who scored high on the Systemizing Quotient-Revised (SQ-R) test prefer music in “the Intense dimension,” characterized as punk, heavy metal, and hard rock. They would rather listen to high arousal music that is intense and thrilling; with positive valence, or animated music; and, prefer cerebral depth and complex structure to poetry.
If you like the later works of John Coltrane, because you like to puzzle out the patterns of the notes he’s not playing as much as the abstract sounds he does make or you really groove to Black Sabbath, you are likely to score high on the SQ-R test.
That said, it does not follow that women are empathetic and like softer music and men are systematic and prefer hard rock, although previously research did show that gender splits along those lines exist. “We found that even when we accounted for sex differences in musical preferences, still what emerged were these patterns for empathy and systemizers,” Greenberg says.
Not entirely sure which you are? The researchers have set up a website, The Musical Universe, where you can take a combination of personality type, brain type and musical preference tests to contribute to their ongoing research. If you want to know more about yourself (or your significant other, or maybe just your Secret Santa), give it a whirl.