According to the popular imagination, there's definitely a correlation between the kind of music a person likes and their personality. Emo kids aren't the most cheerful. Punk fans are, how should we say, low on agreeableness. And metalheads are angry (though actually recent studies sent to me by my metal-loving husband say that metal fans are actually more well adjusted than the average bear. I'm still skeptical.)

But are these stereotypes actually accurate? Is there any scientific basis for the idea that you can guess an individual's personality from their playlists?

According to new research out of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the answer is apparently yes. Give a person a panel of scientifically validated personality tests and this research team insists it can make a good guess as to what station he or she is most likely to tune into on the radio.

Redefining genres

Historically, the problem with correlating personality with musical preferences has been genre labels. In short, they're too fuzzy. What a record company or fan labels 'jazz,' for instance, could range from avant garde experimental to something cheerful and up-tempo. One man's 'rock' is another's 'pop,' and so on.

So the team behind this research set out to find a more precise way to classify music by asking untrained listeners to rate musical samples. "A statistical analysis of the judges' opinions revealed that the differences between this diverse set of musical samples could be reduced to three main dimensions: arousal, valence, and depth," reports Katherine Conrad in Insights by Stanford.

Soft, soothing music is low in arousal, which measures the intensity of a piece (while my husband's picks are at the extreme other end of the scale). Songs with negative valence are what a layperson would label 'sad,' while simple tunes have low depth. Complicated, layered music is high on this last scale.

How do these categories line up with personality?

With an objective way to classify music worked out, the researchers then turned to figuring out which sort of personalities might tend to like which types of tunes. To do this they got 9,500 people to both offer their feelings about 50 different music samples and take standard personality tests. The results proved that personality and musical preference are tightly linked.

"Neurotic individuals preferred music with negative emotions and intensity; open-minded and liberal people liked complex melodies; while those who identified as agreeable and extroverted liked songs with positive emotions," writes Conrad. To explore further, you can test your own personality and musical preferences here.

Those findings might be more scientific than the old 'emo kids are dark' stereotypes, but honestly they're not all that far from the common understanding. Still music psychologist David Greenberg, who led the study, insists the results are a reflection of the incredibly tight link between the human mind and the music it produces.

"Our musical taste is a sonic mirror. Through the music, we can better understand who we are and what we truly feel and believe. As a musician, I see how vast the powers of music really are, and unfortunately, many people do not use music to its full potential," he commented.

For that reason, musicians and music fanatics will no doubt be intrigued by these results. But another group is likely to be paying close attention. The findings could be a game changer for platforms like Spotify and Pandora too.

Looking for more insights into the science of music and mood? Here's research into how music can affect collaboration at work (short answer: it's great for it), family interactions at home, and even the workings of the human body, as well as findings that suggest you should tailor your playlist to the type of work you're hoping to accomplish while listening.

Published on: Aug 19, 2016