The Science Behind Your Music Taste

Turns out, your musical preferences are almost entirely dictated by whether you're an 'empathizer' or a 'systemizer.'
August 1, 2017
11 mins read

There’s nothing like the first time you hear an epic jam. The first verse fades in, the bass starts kicking, the beat ramps up and the melody floods over you, sending chills down your spine and rousing you to bob your head in pure euphoria (and possibly embark on a fist-pumping frenzy if the song is truly transcendent). You find that the pulse of the song consumes you, pulling you out of reality and into a vacation of rhythmic bliss. And you never want to leave.

Luckily, you don’t have to for a while — next comes the honeymoon period of the glorious relationship between you and your beloved jam. You listen to it compulsively and bring it with you wherever you can, in your car, through a walk on campus, in your room and in the shower, where you belt it out to full capacity, expressing your undying love with each uttered lyric.

But alas, the honeymoon period fades, and life goes on.

However, fast-forward to five years later when you’re sitting in a restaurant, and the jam is back. It radiates out of the speakers, sending you in a fit of nostalgia right back to a reverie of the good times you used to have together. How does music induce such profound effects on our sense of self, and why are we so enraptured by certain songs and not others?

Your Brain on Music

Your brain is responsible for creating the intense inner reactions you feel upon hearing a tune. When you hear music that you prefer, your default mode network (DMN), which connects many brain regions in a system, is most connected.

The DMN is associated with introspection, self-awareness, reflection, daydreaming, recalling memories and envisioning the future — its forte is in creating your personal, autobiographical, dreamy perception of life. When you hear a song that makes you feel some type of way, the activation of the DMN is in full swing. It creates an enhanced connection to the music, as if the song is being written into the diary of your life.

At the same time, while the DMN is activated, the task-positive network (TPN), which is involved with goal-oriented activities in the outside world, is shut down. This further explains why focus on your immediate environment fizzles out when you’re enamored with what you’re listening to. The outside world dissipates as you drink up the music, reflect on it and internalize it.

And when you hear a song that makes you feel especially outta this world, your brain concocts a smoothie of feel-good neurochemicals, like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Dopamine is especially addictive, which explains why you can’t get enough of a jiggy song during its honeymoon period.

Why You Like What You Like

Why are you in love with pop, but utterly disgusted by country? Or why are you obsessed with “Sorry” by Justin Bieber, but detest the rest of his musical repertoire?

Your preferences can be explained by many different factors, and one of which has to do with the musical experiences you have during your “reminiscence bump,” which is from ages 12 to 22. This time period is characterized by behind-the-scenes rapid neurological development (thanks, adolescent hormones), accompanied by a whirlwind of emotionally charged “firsts,” like your first kiss, first concert, first move away from home and first breakup.

You become more aware of music during these tumultuous times, and you become more intentional with your music choices, thinking things like “Oh, the woes of my life. I shall listen to emo music to funnel my rage” and “OMG, I think Johnny has a crush on me. I will fanatically listen to ‘Call Me Maybe’ while daydreaming over our imminent love story.”

Other less obvious factors also play into your preferences during this time as well, like what your parents play around the house and what your friends expose you to.

Scientists hypothesize that people use music to validate the way they think, and this information can even explain why friends and romantic partners tend to have the same music taste.

Music begins integrating into your self-image and life story, whether you find yourself into a single like “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction, a guilty pleasure you played every morning while getting ready for school, or the whole genre of alternative rock that you listened to with your buddies.

Your music becomes the soundtrack of your life, and after this time is over, your taste in music is pretty much solidified, causing you to become less open-minded about new music. You keep returning to your favorite songs, and it turns out that 90 percent of the music you listen to thereafter consists of what you’ve heard before.

Music Preferences and Your Thinking Style

Strong musical preferences become even more complex when you look at their correlations with personality. Have you ever been to a punk concert and wondered how the heck people can stand the astronomical volume and vocals reminiscent of an angry gorilla?  Or has your friend tried to get you to listen to acoustic music, but you find it puts you to sleep with boredom? Well, a University of Cambridge study found that your bias is explained by your thinking style.

“Empathizers,” or people who have a drive to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, prefer more emotionally driven music. They’re inclined toward songs that are gentle, warm, poetic, relaxing, sad and thoughtful, like R&B, soul, soft rock, jazz and the blues.

On the other hand, “systemizers,” who have analytical minds and strive to understand and analyze patterns, seek out music that’s more complex, strong, thrilling and tense, like punk, heavy metal and hard rock.

Scientists hypothesize that people use music to validate the way they think, and this information can even explain why friends and romantic partners tend to have the same music taste. If you like rock and I like rock, chances are we think similarly and will get along.

The Music Industry’s Brainwash Tactics

Even though each person has a unique musical preference, people still relate to music in a universal, similar way. No matter where you are in the world, music is an instinctual language that humans are inclined to speak, create meaning from and connect to.

Despite this sentimental notion, the music industry exploits these universals to create songs to make profits. Common principles of music that make it catchy, especially repetition, are poignantly used by the music industry to brainwash listeners to like particular songs and get them hooked.

Due to the mere exposure effect, the more people listen to something, the better they feel about it, even if they hate it at first.

The industry plays on this in two ways: (1) By increasing melodic repetition within songs so that you get hooked on the chorus (think “All About That Bass,” Kpop and, well, almost any song that’s hot on the radio currently), and (2) By flooding the radio with the same songs, over and over. And before you know it, you find yourself having the songs stuck in your head, singing them aloud and reprimanding yourself for starting to like them.

With this phenomenon in mind, the pop music industry doesn’t have a difficult time gaining an audience.

All in all, the sentimentality and intense connection you feel to music isn’t arbitrary — it’s explained by your brain chemistry, your personal life narrative, the way you see yourself and the world and the fact that you’re human.

And in the end, music isn’t just something you listen to, it’s something you do. You get chills at that same part of your favorite song each time it plays. You dim the lights and throw on some jazz to create a romantic mood. You blast The Backstreet Boys on a spontaneous road trip.

And most of all, you get lost, escaping your own limitations as the music invites you to participate in its ebbs and flows.

So, pop on some tunes, and ride that wave.

Tori Rubloff, University of Florida

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Tori Rubloff

University of Florida
Mass Communication

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