Do musical tastes help you get to know someone?

If my twentieth high school reunion last year was any indication, we seem to hang on to the music we listened to as adolescents longer than any other time period. Everyone was dancing to "Purple Rain" and "Rock Lobster" like the music written in 1984 was the best ever written. A 1996 study confirmed this notion, finding that young adults express stronger preference ratings for music than older adults.

Take a look at a random sampling of accounts on MySpace, and you'll see that nearly every member has a song associated with his or her account. It's as if music somehow forms part of a person's identity. But can music also help others get to know a person? Nearly every online dating web site asks participants to list their favorite songs, presumably so potential dating partners can use those preferences to make a character assessment. Are those assessments valid? Is music really a key way people -- especially young people -- learn if prospective mates are compatible?

Peter Rentfrow and Samuel Gosling designed a study to test those questions. In the first part of the study, they simply wanted to see if individuals meeting for the first time talked about music. They recruited sixty University of Texas at Austin students to interact with a randomly-assigned participant they had never met for six weeks on an online bulletin board. Independent raters analyzed the conversations to see how often music and six other topics (books, clothes, movies, TV, football, and other sports) were discussed.

The topics were selected based on a previous study by the same researchers, which had found these were the most popular conversation topics. Here are the results:


The graph compares conversations about music with an average of all the other conversation topics. But still, music was the most popular topic in 4 out of 6 weeks -- even more popular than football, in Austin, during football season.

So given that music is such an important part of "getting to know each other" conversation, what is the music telling conversants about each other? For the second part of the experiment, a separate group of 74 students was asked to fill out a personality questionnaire, and also to make a list of their ten favorite songs. Since most participants found this task difficult, they researchers gave them time to think about their choices, and all participants returned a week later to make any modifications to their list.

For each participant, the researchers created a CD of their top ten songs. Now a new set of eight observers was recruited to listen to each of the 74 CDs (that's right -- 740 songs [actually more than that, because some participants listed albums instead of songs, in which case the researchers selected two representative songs from each album]). After listening to a CD, the observers then tried to predict the personality traits of the person who had picked the songs on that CD. Observers rated participants on the same scale they had used to rate themselves previously. How did the observers do? Rentfrow and Gosling compared the observers' ratings of the participants to a similar study which had observers rate individuals' personality based on videotapes and photographs. Here's a summary of the results:


This chart shows how well the observer ratings correspond to some of the participants' ratings of themselves in the two different studies (these correlations range from +1 to -1, with +1 being a perfect correlation and -1 being a perfect inverse correlation [opposite]). While videos and photos are good for assessing conscientiousness and extraversion, music preferences beat them in allowing observers to predict the participants' own ratings of their agreeableness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. In all, observers' ratings of participants were positively correlated with 14 different personality traits, including those listed above, as well as others such as forgiveness, imagination, and positive affect.

Rentfrow and Gosling argue that observers intuitively understand how personality relates to music preference along certain dimensions. They do point out that these results are limited to young adults, and since the music preferences of older adults aren't as strong, the results might not replicate for that group. In any case, dating sites are probably doing the right thing in including musical taste as a relevant dimension for selecting a mate.

Unfortunately, explaining why, 20 years later, I still prefer the '80s new wave music by the likes of Depeche Mode and The Human League to '90s grunge or '00s hip-hop will probably require significantly more study.

Rentfrow, P.J., & Gosling, S.D. (2006). Message in a ballad: The role of music preferences in interpersonal perception. Psychological Science, 17(3), 236-242.

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I went to college with someone who was into gospel music made in the 1920s - 50 years before he was born. I stopped listening to pop radio stations at 24, and resumed at 31. My brother was into Mozart at 18, but at 32 digs Aphex Twin and Prodigy.

Perhaps what the researchers should have been studying is correllations between personality type and disconformity to the taste fashion of one's milieu.

I find this discussion very interesting for personal reasons. My husband and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary this summer. Our first date was unplanned, and we ended up in one of those restaurants with individual jukeboxes at each table. We scrolled through the 100 songs and didn't agree on a single one! I've always said that we found out early that we had nothing in common, and went on from there. This suggests that people who form perceptions of other people based on musical tastes may be missing out on some possible friendships!

This study reminds me of one of my pet "theories." Based solely on a limited pool of anecdotal studies it seems to me that when it comes to romantic relationships, the man has a greater influence on the musical tastes of the woman. In other words, the girl will adopt more of the musical preferences of the guy than vice versa. I think this might suggest that young men/boys create a stronger affinity for their musican than do young girls. I can think of a few reasons for this, but the first that comes to mind is that society doesn't "allow" boys to emote in the same way or extent as it allows girls to emote. Therefore, boys turn to things like music to create emotional connections and outlets. When a guy get involved in a romantic relationship, one of the ways he shares his feelings is through his musical tastes. Music provides a safe way to emotionally reveal himself to a new girlfriend. Just a theory, but hasn't every guy made that mixed tape/cd for the new girlfriend.

I think Todd's theory sounds like the basis for a fun "Casual Friday" survey...

I find it particularly interesting because I am extremely obsessed and passionate about the music I listen to (and I'm female), but I don't think I openly talk about music as much as some of my male friends do.

At this point, however, it's all anecdotal.

Kapitano -- I think you could make the argument that that's what they were studying. The observers and participants were all college students, so in a sense the observers' reactions to the music tastes of the participants were just comparisons to their expectations.

Caryn -- I agree, agreeing on musical tastes isn't a prerequisite for compatibility. When we met, in college, Greta was a fan of 30s musicals, while I liked New Wave. We did, however, both enjoy classical music: Greta played in the college orchestra, and I was an enthusiastic fan!

Todd -- I might be an exception to your theory. I've acquired a taste for old musicals, but Greta still doesn't like New Wave. I even made Greta a mix tape -- but somehow, it still didn't take!

I think there's a bit of bias in your analysis. There actually was some good, interesting, innovative pop in the 80s and 90s, so it's not surprising that people can identify with it.

I graduated from high school in the 1970s. Elton John. Disco. Kansas. ELO. Arena Rock. Jesus. I cringe to remember it. A whole decade of crap.

I love Depeche Mode and Prince and Nirvana, and I've even been slowly warming to hip-hop -- the music I like least of all is anything that was popular when I was in high school.

PZ --

You're definitely right about the bias -- though I'm not actually sure Depeche Mode is better than Elton John. I was a bit of a hip hop fan in the early days -- I like old school rap, but I was turned off by the gangsta scene in the 90s, and have never really gotten back into it. Having a wife who's into 30s musicals probably didn't help matters....

Alright, here's a bit of data. If my theory, which I'm calling Transmission of Musical Tastes in Romantic Relationship (TMTRR...sounds official now), has any validity we should see some evidence in who's buying the music. If the guys are going to influence the gals more than it might stand to reason that the male purchases more music. I found some data from the RIAA back to 1988 on music purchases by gender. In the late '80s and early '90s, guys were making about 53% of the music purchases. Since the mid 90s, the purchases are closer to 50:50. I can't find older data, but if that data shows the same or larger gender differences (as the trend would suggest) then maybe I'm onto something. I'm in my mid-30s, so my musical tastes were forged in the mid/late '80s at a time when males were making more of the purchases. Anyway, for what it's worth...(not much).

Born in the 1960s and still stuck on its music (although all of it was made before I was born or while I was an infant). I abhorred the music of the 1980s while in high school and college, though I like it better now, out of nostalgia. I completely missed the 1990s - I have no idea about any of the music produced during that decade. Actually, I am not following what is happening in the 2000s either. My wife is now setting the musical tastes of the household and I like it all and have no idea what decade it comes from (It's all over the place, from 1950s through today). I was usually a recepient of mixed tapes from my girlfriends over the years - that is how I learned about some of the music.

"When a guy get involved in a romantic relationship, one of the ways he shares his feelings is through his musical tastes. Music provides a safe way to emotionally reveal himself to a new girlfriend. Just a theory, but hasn't every guy made that mixed tape/cd for the new girlfriend."

Hmmm.... since this caught me in the middle of burning a CD for a new male friend, as I have done in nearly every relationship I've had, does this mean as a female I have 'male' tendencies? ;) Or merely that I am very passionate about music and like to share it as a part of who I am?

(aka perhaps this is not a gender-specific propensity)

A corollary: Age of subjects may influence data and intepretation.

Sapolsky ponders this in a chapter from his recent book "Monkeyluv: and other essays on our lives as animals".

From a book review:
"[Sapolsky] wants to know at what age people become closed to new experiences such as a novel genre of music, raw fish with horseradish, or having a stud put through their tongue. He calls a bunch of radio stations, then sushi bars, and finally 35 body-piercing parlours. His conclusions - 35 for music, 39 for food and 23 for body decorations - make depressing reading for anyone contemplating a midlife crisis. It seems that our taste for adventure is one of the first casualties of ageing."

I considered his subject pool was too small for good statistical anaylsis and interpretation considering the number of 'outliers', including myself. Or perhaps there is a curve where novelty seeking and acceptance decreases near mid-life and swings upward again >~45....... :)

Oh, Macrobe, you are a girl after my own heart. Our house is full of music my husband should listen to, and I now recommend guitarists for my rather talented Ibanez playing son to listen to as well. (And in return he plays me judiciously selected chunks of metal riffs.)But let's face it, being trained to appreciate music might have been gender-specific in the Dark Ages, but it doesn't have to stay that way :)And music is for sharing, why does it matter who does the most of it anyhow?(Though I have to admit the first man who lent me records won my heart straight away. Unfortunately he didn't really want it, so there you go.)
To extend this little rant, I have a houseful of teenagers who like classic rock and 80s music!! while I like to think I will hear some new music again just once before I die. I would love to see a study of whole families. Great post, Dave.

I think it's very difficult (even impossible) to theorize musical/personality compatibility. Mainly because we are dealing with a topic (music) which is highly subjective. I agree that a person can find solace in relating to others through taste. Familiarity also breeds comfort, in the beginning. But really, you can ask millions of people, and you will get thousands of different answers...

I'm interested in Todd's theory, but I think there might be different reasons behind it. For one thing, who spends more on music is a meaningless measure, because it is my observation that women are more oriented toward paying for the essentials before doing extraneous spending. In my last relationship, the music sharing dimension was wonderful, but I was the one that made the mixed tapes/CDs, however, it was nice to relate to someone with similar musical tastes. When I was married, it was my ex who imposed his music on me, in part because he had a collection with over 300 CDs (whereas I had saved my money to do art, so I had approximately 12, and I was from a family with significantly less financial resources that didn't give me large monetary gifts as his did), plus he would take my CDs and trade them in, thinking I didn't want them, because I didn't often play them. The truth is that I enjoy silence. As a composer, I need quiet to let the music that is in my own head run. So if I'm around a stereo fanatic, they'll control the music, because I simply forget to turn it on.

Todd, just to add my two cents in, I have taken on my partners taste in music and incorperated it with my own, but he hasn't changed a bit in tyerms of musical taste since we met. I have tried to get him to listen to other music but rock and jazz are it for him. haha. I think perhaps the girl is more interested in getting to know the guys personality, and therefore sees his music as part of it? I know that was my reasoning, whereas guys don't look at it that way....well at least the guys I know