Understanding Musical Taste

Music plays an essential role in the lives of people all over the world, which is why many wonder what individual factors might influence musical preferences. A large-scale study conducted by researchers at the Heriot-Watt University, Scotland, on 36,000 participants has helped clear some uncertainty. It suggests that one’s attitude and personality are closely related to their taste in music. Not only this, but the study also provides a matrix depicting personalities for each music genre.

But, are attitude and personality solely responsible for this inclination?


Blame evolution, but it’s an irrefutable fact that humans are predisposed to be wary of anything new and be receptive to familiar things. In the case of music, this explains why the more a person listens to a song, the more the boundaries between the listener and the music break down along with the creation of climax spots (sudden rush of hormones). Musicians identify these spots and implement the universal law of the ‘acceptance of the known’ to sell their tracks by using repetitive chords and choruses, which the audience savours. Hence, from the standpoint of musical notes or themes, as much as 90% of any track is something we have already heard earlier.


But then why do friends go to war over their thoughts on the latest album by a favourite artist? Well, simply put, what’s familiar for one person might not be for another; that is, their environments differ. Recent research also suggests that psychology might have a role to play as well.


Speaking of one’s environment, the renowned music streaming platform Spotify creates taste profiles for every user. Although older generations are less exposed to the world of technology and certain artists with a massive fan following like Led Zeppelin don’t use such streaming platforms actively, this metric can be used to study the trends for the younger generation.  


fig. 1 Trend depicting the popularity of artists listened to, among different age groups



The common trend is as you grow older, you become more and more distant with modern-day music. For instance, a large chunk of the older generation probably hasn’t heard a lot of the music produced by contemporary artists like Billie Eilish. Sure, artists like The Beatles appeal to people across generations, but such artists are fewer in number.


fig. 2 Age distribution of users



One of the primary reasons for this trend is that as people grow older and move to more diverse social settings, they are exposed to music that isn’t popular on the radio. Odds are your 14-year-old cousin has never heard of Porcupine Tree. But, they are renowned in your social circles. The data suggests that, particularly in the case of males, their taste tends to diversify away from popular music to a more subjective definition of “good music,” which encompasses music over different eras. 


Another interesting observation was that adults who lived with their children or grandchildren were more exposed to the popular music of the present day and had a tendency to focus more on it.


It is interesting to see the progression of music taste over time. For instance, something happens to a listener between the 25 to 34 and 35 to 44 age buckets. Their music tastes tend to mature and become more refined preferences as they grow older.


fig. 3 Preferred artists among different age groups



These tastes start to get shaped in their teenage years, particularly around the age of 14. This is when most minds go through their rebellious phases and see music as an outlet. The music tends to speak to them. However, what decides their eventual taste is what they have been exposed to since their childhood days. For instance, a family living in Amazon would have neither heard of Hindustani classical nor modern-day pop music. Your musical preferences are a product of your environment. Or are they?



Clip 1. Consonant Sound


Clip 2. Disssonant Sound


A growing consensus suggests that the first clip is much better over the second one. Scientists refer to these clips as Consonant and Dissonant, respectively. According to the Oxford Dictionary, consonant music is a combination of tones that sound pleasant together while dissonant music sounds unpleasant to most. Does it imply that consonant sounds are better than dissonant sounds, or does your environment determine this decision?


To answer this question, scientists at MIT and Brandeis University conducted a study on an Amazonian tribe, the Tsimane (chee-MAH-nay) community. This community was selected because they had little or no exposure to western music (consonant or dissonant). Scientists asked members of the tribe to rate one audio clip vs the other. Surprisingly, they found that people reacted to the so-called unpleasant sounds (the dissonant ones) as positively as they did to the consonant ones. But, what if the research-like atmosphere made the subjects uncomfortable? It could have altered the actual results, leading to false conclusions. This issue was resolved by the use of control experiments. People were made to listen to specific sets of sounds, that are opposite and culturally-independent, like laughter and gasps of fear. The reaction to these was as expected (pleasant and unpleasant respectively), confirming that the research-like atmosphere had a negligible effect. 


Contradictory to the growing consensus, this study suggests that acceptance of consonance and dissonance is a function of exposure. Since the Tsimane community had insignificant exposure to these two types, their reaction came out to be entirely opposite of what was expected.


Besides environmental exposure, the psychology of a person is also an instrumental aspect of musical taste determination. To grasp its importance, try to recollect when you last heard a perfect song. The first verse fades in, followed by the second, transporting you into an ocean of satisfaction and rhythmic bliss, the so-called honeymoon period. Then comes the stage of moving on when you get bored and find another song generating the same feeling, and the process goes on and on. To what extent should we hold psychology accountable for this transition? 


The brain is responsible entirely for creating the intense inner reactions upon hearing a tune. The Default Mode Network (DMN) refers to specific regions of the brain responsible for recalling memories and envisioning the future. Along with this, the Task-Positive Network (TPN), another region, is responsible for goal-oriented activity. The intense inner reactions lead to the activation of DMN and the shut-down of TPN. Thus both correlate positively to give you a feeling of euphoria and contentment. As a topping, the brain discharges ‘feel-goodneurochemicals like Dopamine and Serotonin, which are primarily responsible for the honeymoon period.


What’s more interesting is why we like the song in the first place. Scientists at the University of Cambridge conducted a study to answer this question. They divided a group of people into three parts: Empathizers (E), Systemizers (S), and Balanced (B). Empathizers are those who have the drive to understand others’ feelings and thoughts, while Systemizers are people with analytical minds. This division is based on two numbers: EQ (Empathy Quotient) and SQ (Systemizing Quotient)


fig. 4 Responses of type E, S and B individuals to distinct music genres



Most people like listening to that music which resonates with their thinking style. Empathizers have the most positive response to mellow tones while Systemizers respond positively to intense songs. Also, Empathizers and Systemizers show highly negative responses when they are made to hear each other’s favourite genres. Does this explain why you and your friends have different genre preferences? 


Apart from psychological and environmental factors, which are both changeable to some extent, there are some involuntary factors which affect musical taste. Interestingly, these factors also affect how different animals react to music.



To conclude, your musical preferences are a product of your thought process and your environment. Many times, the fact that you like certain genres that your friend isn’t a big fan of, is purely because of your thought process. For most people, the music that they really love talks to them subconsciously. It may not always be the most popular choice. If you have a sufficiently independent thought process, that is not bogged down by societal pressures; odds are you will have a niche preference. But, in general, certain specific themes define good music to us. For some, the importance of one component would be more than the other like certain people prefer the lyrics over the music and others vice versa. Some people are fine even without vocals in their songs whereas for most vocals are a necessity. By and large, the themes that define your musical taste are common at the fundamental levels of music theory. The way your brain gives importance to these themes determines your musical preferences.



Cover Image by Adrian Korte on Unsplash






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