The Soul of the Metallica Lover

What our music tastes say about our personalities

Jorge Adorno / Reuters

For anyone who has ever caught some treacly adult contemporary on the radio and wondered “Who on earth likes this stuff?” while twisting the dial, a new study might have an answer. A bunch of softies, that’s who.

In the paper, published recently in the online journal PLoS One, Cambridge psychologist David Greenberg theorized that music tastes are determined in part by peoples’ tendency to fall into one of two rough personality categories: empathizers or systemizers. Empathizers are people who are very attuned to others’ emotions and mental states. Systemizers are more focused on patterns that govern the natural and physical worlds.

Over the course of multiple experiments that included 4,000 participants, listeners took personality questionnaires and then listened to and rated 50 pieces of music.

Greenberg found that people who scored high on empathy tended to prefer music that was mellow (like soft rock and R&B), unpretentious (country and folk), and contemporary (Euro pop and electronica.) What they didn’t like, meanwhile, was “intense” music, which he classified as things like punk and heavy metal. People who scored high on systemizing, meanwhile, had just the opposite preferences—they kick back to Slayer and could do without Courtney Barnett.

Type “e” are empathizers; type “s” are systemizers; type “b” are in between. (PLOS)

To get even more specific, the music empathizers liked tended to be softer, more depressing, and have more emotional depth. Systemizers, meanwhile, grooved to things that were high-energy, animated, and complex. Empathizers liked strings; systemizers liked distorted, loud, and “percussive.”

Preferences for various music qualities, by personality type. (PLOS)

They also came up with some, uh, playlists for people who find themselves solidly in either the empathizer or systemizer category.

High on empathy:

  • “Hallelujah” – Jeff Buckley
  • “Come Away With Me” – Norah Jones
  • “All of Me” – Billie Holliday
  • “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” – Queen

High on systemizing:

  • Concerto in C – Antonio Vivaldi
  • Etude Opus 65 No 3 — Alexander Scriabin
  • “God Save the Queen” – The Sex Pistols
  • “Enter Sandman” – Metallica
* * *

Music taste has long been thought to offer a window to the soul. (Past research has found, for example, that open-minded people are more likely to enjoy the blues, jazz, and folk, while extraverts like pop, electronica, and religious music.) It’s why people at parties ask each other “What music do you listen to?”

Still, this study doesn’t account for the fact that the answer to that question is, more often than not, “A little bit of everything.” Many people listen to Avicii when they run and to Bon Iver when they’re writing a memo in an open-plan office. It’s hard to imagine someone who listens only to Norah Jones on loop—although I would like to meet that person and ask them for stress-management tips.

The results could still be helpful, though, when it comes to things like understanding autism (some think people with autism are just extreme systemizers), or in determining whether listening to different types of music could help people build empathy.

Or, perhaps less nobly but more lucratively, the findings could be useful for companies like Pandora and Spotify.

“A lot of money is put into algorithms to choose what music you may want to listen to,” Greenberg said in a release. “By knowing an individual’s thinking style, such services might in future be able to fine tune their music recommendations to an individual.”