Music Psychology

Does Music Choice Say Anything About Personality?

Image Courtesy of

An ongoing study undertaken by Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University (2008), the largest and most comprehensive of its kind, has generated a number of interesting findings regarding personality traits and musical preferences. The following table indicates which traits have been associated with preference for each music genre. Some of the findings run contrary to traditional stereotypes. For example, heavy metal fans are more inclined to be gentle and at ease, and dance music fans are more aggressive, on average (note: not everyone who likes a particular music genre will have the associated traits–these traits were just more or less common among fans of each genre who participated in the study).

    • Blues: at ease, creative, gentle, outgoing, high self-esteem
    • Bollywood: creative, outgoing
    • Chart Pop: gentle, hardworking, high self-esteem, not at ease, not creative, outgoing
    • Classical Music: at ease, creative, high self-esteem, not outgoing
    • Country/Western: hardworking, outgoing
    • Dance: creative, not gentle, outgoing
    • Creative/Not Gentle/Outgoing
    • Disco: gentle, hardworking, high self-esteem, not creative, outgoing
    • Easy Listening: at ease, not creative, gentle, hardworking, high self-esteem, outgoing
    • Funk: at ease, creative, high self-esteem, not hardworking, outgoing
    • Heavy Metal: at ease, creative, gentle, low self-esteem, not hardworking, not outgoing
    • Indian Folk: creative, gentle, low self-esteem, not hardworking
    • Indie: creative, low self-esteem, not gentle, not hardworking
    • Jazz: at ease, creative, high self-esteem, outgoing
    • Latino: at ease, creative, gentle, hardworking, high self-esteem, outgoing
    • Marching/Military: at ease, high self-esteem, not gentle, not outgoing
    • Opera: creative, gentle, high self-esteem
    • Rap: high self-esteem, outgoing
    • Reggae: at ease, creative, gentle, high self-esteem, not hardworking, outgoing
    • Rock: at ease, creative, high self-esteem, hardworking, not gentle
    • Samba: at ease, creative, gentle, high self-esteem, outgoing
    • Soul: at ease, creative, gentle, high self-esteem, outgoing
    • Swing: at ease, creative, high self-esteem

Personality Dimensions Associated with Music Choice

Research undertaken by Rentfrow and Gosling (2003) also found links between a number of personality dimensions and musical preferences. It’s important to note that because intelligence and physical attractiveness scores come from self-ratings by subjects, they may provide more information about a subject’s self-esteem than the way in which he or she is perceived by others. Also worth noting is that emotional stability was not linked with music preference, and contrary to popular belief, fans of intense and rebellious music were not more likely to be more disagreeable or neurotic than fans of other music genres.

Note: “Openness to Experience” is a personality trait that encompasses a love of variety, aesthetic sensitivity, imaginativeness, and intellectual curiosity.

Reflective and complex: blues, jazz, classical, folk

    • Emotionally stable
    • Open to experience
    • Politically liberal
    • Non-athletic
    • Intelligent (generally)
    • High verbal intelligence
    • Imaginative
    • Tolerant

Intense and rebellious: rock, alternative, heavy metal

    • Open to experience
    • Risk-taking
    • Athletic/active
    • Intelligent (generally)
    • High verbal intelligence

Upbeat and conventional: country, sound tracks, religious, pop

    • Extroverted
    • Agreeable
    • Conscientious
    • Conservative
    • Self-rated as physically attractive
    • Athletic
    • Not open to new experiences
    • Conventional
    • Cheerful
    • Reliable
    • Helpful

Energetic and rhythmic: rap/hip-hop, soul/funk, dance/electronica

    • Extroverted
    • Agreeable
    • Talkative
    • Politically liberal
    • Athletic
    • Self-rated as physically attractive
    • Energetic
    • Forgiving

Does Listening to Classical Music Make You Smarter?

Although a few studies have found short-term performance benefits, there is little evidence that simply listening to classical music such as Mozart boosts brain power in the long run (Pietschnig et al. 2009), but learning and playing music appears to improve memory and other aspects of cognitive functioning (Hanna-Pladdy & MacKay, 2011; Rauscher et al., 1997; Yim-Chi Ho et al., 2003).

Are Those Who Listen to Heavy Metal More Likely to Commit Suicide?

Although the suicide rate is higher than average among heavy metal fans, evidence suggests that many people who are already depressed are drawn to this genre (Becknell et al., 2008). It’s unlikely that listening to heavy metal music will trigger depression in happy people, and fans who are unhappy or under stress may use it therapeutically; studies have shown that heavy metal music lovers shift to a more positive mood while listening to their preferred music (University of Warwick, 22 March 2007; Wooten, 1992).

Does Listening to Rap Music or Heavy Metal Cause Problem Behaviours?

Although there are higher rates of arrest, drug and alcohol abuse, and poor school performance among rap and metal fans, these problems often begin before young fans gravitate to these musical genres. In other words, at-risk youth may be drawn to rap and metal, but the music probably isn’t causing their problems (Baker & Bor, 2008; Tatum, 1999; Took and Weiss, 1994).

It should be noted that rap and metal are diverse genres and each includes positive subgenres. For example, Miranda & Claes (2004) found higher rates of delinquency among gangsta rap fans, but not fans of hip hop in general. And there are plenty of gifted students and good citizens who are rap and metal fans. The University of Warwick (2007) conducted a large study of gifted and talented heavy metal fans, finding that these top students used heavy metal music to dispel stress and enhance their moods.

Do Rap and Heavy Metal Music Promote Misogyny?

Research suggests that listening to metal or rap can exacerbate pre-existing negative attitudes about women, but is unlikely to trigger misogyny in those who weren’t already somewhat misogynistic (Cobb & Boettcher III, 2007; Lawrence & Joiner, 1991).

What Is Musical Intelligence?

Musical intelligence is one of the eight intelligences proposed by Howard Gardner in his Multiple Intelligences model (the others are linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic). Those with musical intelligence are particularly sensitive to aspects of music such as rhythm, tone, and pitch, and typically display a talent for singing, playing musical instruments, or composing music. They may also learn more easily when information is presented in a music-related form or context (Gardner, 1983).

Does Music Have an Effect on Plants?

Many people believe that playing music for plants will promote healthy growth. Robertson (n.d.) describes the research of Dorothy Retallack who took this idea a step further, subjecting plants to various types of music and observing their health and growth. In one experiment, she set up two chambers, with plants “listening” to a local rock’n’roll station in one and soothing music in the other. The plants in the soothing music chamber grew well and soon began to bend toward the speakers, whereas the rock’n’roll plants were gangly and drooping or stunted with small leaves. By day sixteen, many of the rock’n’roll plants were dying, whereas the plants in the soothing music condition were growing beautifully.

In a second experiment, Retallack played a tape of music by Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Vanilla Fudge, and the plants grew away from the speakers as though they were trying to escape. In another experiment, three groups of plants were placed in separate chambers with one group “hearing” Bach, another North Indian classical sitar and tabla music, and a third no music at all to act as a control group. The plants appeared to “like” the North Indian classical music the most, but seemed to “enjoy” the Bach music as well. Subsequent experiments found that plants did not react to country music, “liked” jazz, “disliked” discordant modern classical music, and continued to “hate” rock music.

Although Retallack’s experiments are interesting, it should be noted that her methods have been fiercely criticized by Dr. Chalker-Scott (n.d.) on a variety of grounds, ranging from Retallack’s tendency to anthropomorphize  (feelings and preferences are ascribed to the plants) to the lack of controls (humidity, water, light, etc.) in her experimental design.

What Is Music Therapy?

Music therapy encompasses a variety of techniques, including listening to vibrational music (vibroacoustic) or metered music with a therapeutic tempo (entrainment) or working directly with music therapists to create music or conduct various therapeutic activities to music.

Music therapy has been used successfully to aid with stroke rehabilitation, increase recall and reduce agitation in those with Alzheimer’s disease, remedy social deficits related to autistic spectrum disorders, decrease emotional and physical pain, and reduce stress and anxiety (see Music Reduces Physical Pain, Anxiety, and Depression; Promotes Healing for more information on this).

Is It True That Suicide Rates Are Higher Among Country Music Fans?

Country is among the most popular music genres in the United States, with a market share of 10.7% in 2000, compared to 24.8% for rock music, nearly 13% for rap/hip-hop, 8% for pop, and just short of 3% for jazz (Benz, 2001). Country music has an even higher popularity rating when music fans are asked about their preferences, suggesting that many people listen to it on the radio rather than purchasing albums or individual songs (Jeffrey, 1998).

Country music arose from a story-telling tradition, with a preference for detailed narrative rather than a narrow focus on a specific issue or a moment in time that characterizes many other genres. The majority of country music songs draw upon the theme of love (often the loss of love), and the only political issues that are usually addressed include patriotism and the stresses associated with poverty, changing family values, or being a part of the blue-collar working class. Simple dualities (good vs. evil, work vs. freedom, criminal vs. law-abiding) are prefered to complex moral gray areas. In older country music, common emotions expressed include, guilt, inadequacy, depression, confusion, and loneliness, and similarities have been found between country and rap music themes in their depictions of violence and underclass realities (Ryan & Calhoun III, 1996).

The majority of country music fans are over 35 years of age, and many are over 45 (Jeffrey, 1998). An ongoing music-fan personality study undertaken by Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University has found that country fans tend to be extroverted and hardworking (BBC News, 5 September 2008).

Studies Investigating the Country Music-Suicide Link

Nearly 20 years ago, Stack and Gundlach (1992) made headlines, drew hate mail, and won an IgNoble Prize for discovering that country music fans had a higher suicide rate than fans of other music genres. Having conducted a multiple regression analysis in 49 areas of the United States, the pair found that in areas where country music was most popular (as evidenced by airtime devoted to it on local radio stations), the suicide rate among white people was higher. This result was not explainable by other factors such as divorce rates, poverty, or the availability of guns in the area. The researchers attribute this finding to the bleak themes in many older country music songs, which often focused on alcohol abuse, marital strife, financial difficulties, employment problems, and an overall sense of bitterness or hopelessness. They believe that this music may exacerbate a preexisting suicidal mood, though it is unlikely to trigger suicidal thoughts in an otherwise happy person.

Maguire and Snipes (1995), conducting their own study in 1994, were unable to replicate the results of Stack and Gundlach, so they have asserted that the country-music suicide link is spurious. Stack and Gundlach have responded by critiquing the latter’s research method. Until further studies are conducted, it appears that the question is still open for debate, with the link between country music and suicide neither proved nor disproved definitively.

In a 2004 interview, Gundlach notes that newer country songs tend to focus on more upbeat themes than older country music, and so are less likely to make a bad state of mind worse. He describes today’s country music as “peppier” and asserts that “The country music that we have today is not the same kind of country music that was related to suicide back when we did this … When we did [our study], there were songs like D-I-V-O-R-C-E … It was predominantly tears in the beer types of music” (Reuters/ABC News Online, 3 October 2004).

There has certainly been a decline in the popularity of alcoholic love-’em-an-leave-’em males in country songs, with more caring men and strong, assertive women moving to the forefront of the genre in recent years (Ryan & Calhoun III, 1996). This suggests that even if there was a suicide link in the past, it is unlikely to exist with modern-day country music.

Can Music Affect Consumer Behaviour?

A number of studies indicate that it does. In particular, researchers have found that loudness, tempo, and genre of music have significant effects on how long people spend in shops and restaurants, how much they purchase or consume, and whether they view brands or individual products favourably or unfavourably.

Music Volume Influences Time Perception and Time Spent Shopping

Music volume is negatively correlated with shopping time, but people in grocery stores playing loud music make just as many purchases despite shopping for a shorter period of time. This indicates that sales per minute are much higher when music is played loudly than with soft background music (Smith & Cumow 1966).

Researchers have also found that when department stores play Top 40 music, shoppers over 25 believe that they have spent more time shopping, whereas in stores that play instrumental easy listening music, people under 25 feel that they have been in the store for longer than they have. These findings suggest that unfamiliar or less-preferred music slows down perceived time for the shopper (Yalch & Spangenberg, 1990).

How Music Tempo Affects Consumer Behaviour

Experiments conducted in the 1980s found that in both supermarkets (Milliman, 1982) and restaurants (Milliman, 1986), slower music creates slower traffic flow, which means that people shop for longer in a supermarket and spend more time eating and drinking in a restaurant. Both studies found much higher sales volumes in the slow tempo condition. This is unsurprising, as consumers who are moving more slowly are more inclined to see additional items they would like. Restaurants playing slow music had longer waits for tables and much higher customer bar bills as well. Interestingly, although restaurant patrons didn’t eat more in the slow music condition, they drank far more.

Studies have shown that classical music may be particularly effective in triggering increased spending (for more on this, visit the Classical Music page).

Music and Product Evaluation

Unsurprisingly, people are more inclined to desire a product that has been advertised in conjunction with music they enjoy than one that has been paired with unappealing music or no music at all (Mitchell, 1988; Simpkins & Smith, 1974). Numerous studies have also shown that consumers are more likely to buy products when the music used to advertise them is aligned with the product. These effects work for both individual products and entire brands (Oakes, 2007).

Oakes’s (2007) research review indicates that in addition to whether or not music is the consumer’s preferred type, congruity between music and the product being advertised is also very important. The most effective music used in advertising is that composed specifically to match the product, although recall of advertising messages can also be enhanced by using popular songs, particularly when the music is played without lyrics. Those listening to the advertisement are inclined to sing along, supplying the missing lyrics either in their minds or overtly, which increases their involvement with the advertisement and the likelihood that they will remember it afterwards (Roehm, 2001).

For more psychology articles, visit the main Psychology page.

    • BBC News. (5 September 2008). “Music Tastes Link to Personality.”
    • Becknell, M.E.; Firmin, M.W.; Hwang, C.; Fleetwood, D.M.; Tate, K.L.; & Schwab, G.D. (2008). “Effects of Listening to Heavy Metal Music on College Women: A Pilot Study.” College Student Journal, 42(1), 24-35.
    • Benz, M. (31 March 2001). “Rock Still the Top-Selling Genre.” Billboard Magazine, 113(12), 6.
    • Bruner, G. (1990). “Music, Mood, and Marketing.” Journal of Marketing, 54(4), 94-104
    • Chalker-Scott, L. (n.d.). “The Myth of Absolute Science: ‘If It’s Published, It Must Be True’.” Washington State University,
    • Cobb, M.D., & Boettcher, III, W.A. (2007). “Ambivalent Sexism and Misogynistic Rap Music: Does Exposure to Eminem Increase Sexism?” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37(12), 3,025-3,042.
    • Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books.
    • Hanna-Pladdy, B., & MacKay, A. (2011). “The Relation Between Instrumental Music Activity and Cognitive Aging.” Neuropsychology, 25(3), 378-386.
    • Heriot-Watt Univerisity. (2008). “Music Preferences Link to Personality – Press Release.”
    • Jeffrey, D. (1998). “Country Is No. 1 Genre, But Its Fans Aren’t Biggest Buyers.” Billboard, 110(36), 103.
    • Lawrence, J.S., & Joyner, D.J. (1991). “The Effects of Sexually Violent Rock Music on Males’ Acceptance of Violence Against Women.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15(1), 49-63.
    • Milliman, R.E. (1982). “Using Background Music to Affect the Behavior of Supermarket Shoppers.” Journal of Marketing, 46(3), 286-291.
    • Milliman, R.E. (1986). “The Influence of Background Music on the Behavior of Restaurant Patrons.” Journal of Consumer Research, 13(2), 286-289.
    • Miranda, D., & Claes, M. (2004). “Rap Music Genres and Deviant Behaviours in French-Canadian Adolescents.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 33, 113-122.
    • Mitchell, A.A. (1988). “Current Perspectives and Issues Concerning the Explanation of Feeling Advertising Effects.” In Nonverbal Communication in Advertising, Sidney Hecker & David W. Stewart, Eds. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
    • Oakes, S. (2007). “Evaluating Empirical Research into Music in Advertising: A Congruity Perspective.” Journal of Advertising Research, 47(1), 38-50.
    • Rauscher, F.H.; Shaw, G.L.; Levine, L.J.; Wright, E.L.; Dennis, W.R.; & Newcomb, R.L. (1997). “Music Training Causes Long-Term Enhancement of Preschool Children’s Spatial-Temporal Reasoning.” Neurological Research, 19, 2-8.
    • Reuters/ABC News Online. (3 October 2004). “Country Music-Suicide Study Tops the IgNoble Awards.”
    • Rentfrow, P.J., & Gosling, S.D. (2003). “The Do Re Mi’s of Everyday Life: The Structure and Personality Correlates of Music Preferences.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(6), 1,236–1,256.
    • Roberson, D. (n.d.). “About Positive Music: The Plant Experiments.” The DoveSong Foundation,
    • Roehm, M.L. (2011). “Instrumental vs. Vocal Versions of Popular Music in Advertising.” Journal of Advertising Research, 41(3), 49-62.
    • Ryan, J., & Calhoun III, L. H. (1996). “Gender or Genre? Emotion Models in Commercial Rap and Country Music.” Popular Music & Society, 20(2), 121-154.
    • Simpkins, J.D., & Smith, J.A. (1974). “Effects of Music on Source Evaluations.” Journal of Broadcasting, 18(3), 361-367.
    • Smith, P., & Cumow, R. (1966). “‘Arousal Hypothesis’ and the Effects of Music on Purchasing Behavior.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 50(3), 255-256.
    • Snipes, J.B., & Maguire, E.R. (1995). “Country Music, Suicide, and Spuriousness.” Social Forces, 74(1), 327-329.
    • Stack, S., & Gundlach, J. (1992). “The Effect of Country Music on Suicide.” Social Forces, 71(1), 211-218.
    • Tatum, B.L. (1999). “The Link Between Rap Music and Youth Crime and Violence: A Review of the Literature and Issues [HTML Version].” Justice Professional, 11(3).
    • Took, K.J., & Weiss, D.S. (1994). “The Relationship Between Heavy Metal and Rap Music and Adolescent Turmoil: Real or Artifact?” Adolescence, 29, 613-623.
    • University of Warwick. (22 March 2007). “Gifted Students Beat the Blues with Heavy Metal.”
    • Wooten, M.A. (1992). “The Effects of Heavy Metal Music on Affect Shifts of Adolescents in an Inpatient Psychiatric Setting.” Music Therapy Perspectives, 10, 93-98.
    • Yalch, R.F., & Spangenberg, E. (1990).”Effects of Store Music on Shopping Behavior.” Journal of Consumer Marketing, 7(2), 55-63.
    • Yim-Chi Ho, M.P.; Cheung, M.; & Chan, A.S. (2003). “Music Training Improves Verbal but Not Visual Memory: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Explorations in Children.” Neuropsychology, 17(3): 439-450.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.