A blog of music and the mind

Why Do We Like the Music We Like?

If you were preparing to meet a total stranger and wanted a quick rundown on this person–some basic information to help you determine who you were dealing with–you might examine the individual’s occupation, family history, criminal background, and so on. Those areas alone could provide tremendous insight into who people are and what they’ve done.

If I were playing this game, I would also inquire into the person’s taste in music.

That question seems trivial, silly even, almost as though I were trying to be funny. After all, “What kind of music do you like?” is about as close to a parlor question as one could ask. It’s a question for first dates.

But think for a moment about the purpose of first dates. They are usually planned so two people can get to know each other. Of course, anyone who’s been on a first date probably just hopes the other person names an artist or genre that the couple can enjoy together.

I see the music question as more than an idle time-passer, preferring to approach this kind of investigation with much more gravity.

“What kind of music do you like?”

I try to ask that question of everyone I know. You might now be wondering: if I don’t ask the question to pass the time or solely to find some common interest with the person, why do I ask it at all?

It’s because I believe honest answers can tell me almost as much about people as their family background or psychological profiles, just from a different angle. From a person’s musical tastes, I begin to make judgments. I am not referring to cruel, unfair prejudices against a new acquaintance. Rather, those musical tastes give me an idea of who people are, perhaps where they come from, and, most importantly, how they think and what puts them in touch with their emotions.

Social Interpretations of Musical Interests

I will provide a few quick and easy examples of how I personally might think about people’s answers to my question. If a friend in 2020 names Bob Dylan, The Band, and J.J. Cale (as I might answer, myself) as musical tastes, I could say to myself, “Artists from the 60s and 70s. It’s all folk and roots and blues and blues rock. These are classic artists, often gentle and melancholy. I think this person might like long drives and watching the sunset after mowing the lawn. Probably the person truly feels and understands the emotions in those artists’ lyrics.”

Those would be my thoughts. You might think entirely different thoughts, or not know who any of those artists are.

If I get an answer such as “I really enjoy listening to Gregorian chants from around the world,” I might wonder if Christianity plays or once played an important role in the individual’s life. Similarly, if someone’s favorite music is the violin concertos of Franz Joseph Haydn, I would probably instantly assume, in a natural human way, that the individual was raised in a somewhat more cultured environment than other people, or that the person adopted the culture later. Classical music in 2020 is a niche interest. I would inquire gently into the person’s upbringing and whether that taste descended from a parent.

Maybe none of my quick assumptions would be correct in any of those cases. I’d never know until I asked.

What I find most intriguing is that those three answers would put those ideas in my head at all. Those are all cultural associations I was making, for instance, between the enjoyment of Bob Dylan and the proclivity for appreciating a sunset. That view comes from my own experiences, and obviously we must not try to interpret the world only from our own perspectives.

But there are still hard, rudimentary facts you can draw from someone’s stated musical interests. If you like Gregorian chants, you must be able to draw some pleasure from Latin a cappella vocalizations of a Christian nature. Similarly, if you listen to Haydn, you probably are just fine with the crying sounds of a violin.

My ultimate question in these cases–and the crux of this post–is: “Why do certain people like certain genres of music?” What creates those interests? What is responsible for the great diversity of musical preferences around the world? And why do those interests tend more or less to stay the same as we age?

I am as interested in those answers as anyone who is intently reading this. The matter fascinates me because we know that humans can’t exactly choose what they like, love, dislike, or hate.

Play me some house music. I won’t like it. It just isn’t in my brain that way.

I tend to ponder these matters on my own, without the aid of psychology or any other hard science. However, to address the question “Why do we like the music we like?” with the weight I feel it is owed, let’s dig into the research and try to interpret it as best we can.

Here are three reasons why we like the music we like.

1.  Musical Familiarity Comes from Our Early Years

Just as parents start instilling language sounds in their children from birth, so, too, does music take hold in our brains as we are growing up. We hear and become familiar with the music around us, whether it’s the typical chord progressions of Western rock or the music produced by the eight bayin, or categories, of traditional Chinese instruments. This is how types of music become ingrained in us. As infants, we can’t say we like this or that artist or song specifically, but we become accustomed to the styles of music we hear all the time. That familiarity would seem to breed actual interest later.

I can join probably millions of other Americans in attesting to this fact. I grew up hearing whatever my parents liked to listen to in the car or on the radio my dad had installed on the back wall of the shower. In my case, I was raised among the sounds of Frank Sinatra, Celine Dion, polka music, and whatever could be found on mainstream adult-contemporary FM stations.

It’s an eclectic collection, but origins in the Western world unite all those artists and genres. What does Ol’ Blue Eyes have to do with polka music? Nothing, really. But, by hearing those sounds repeatedly, my brain became accustomed to the beats and measures of what Western audiences liked in their music. This must be why the music I first started seeking out was American and British rather than Korean or South African.

My research into this subject has put the matter succinctly: just as hearing our parents speak to us as newborns primes our brains to speak our native language, so, too, does early music exposure equip us to recognize those musical styles.

2.  Musical Tastes Generally Form around Age 14

A second factor that influences our tastes in music is our age. Multiple sources I have found indicate that musical interests tend to take hold in our brains when we become teenagers, actually right around 14 years old (though women tend to become attached to music at slightly earlier ages than men, at about 11 or 12 years old).

I understand research that makes umbrella statements such as that are obviously generalizing based on studies. Not every human who likes music started thinking deeply about it at exactly age 14. But that general era of our childhoods are impressionable times for us.

circle of music notes

The reason for this seems to be none other than that great human equalizer known as puberty. You remember puberty, don’t you? That was when you heard songs that seemed to speak to your anxious, questioning, teenaged self and alleviate whatever stresses you were experiencing at the time.

This bit of research is mildly amusing to me because, although I always enjoy being an exception to some rule or statistic, I fit right into the numbers in this case. In 2005, when I was 14 years old, I heard Led Zeppelin for the first time, and it changed the direction of my life.

Led Zeppelin became an obsession. It was all I wanted and needed. My discovery of the blues music that had lent Led Zeppelin its existence was still a full decade away. All I knew was that those primal beats and grooves were what my life had been missing. Songs such as “Dazed and Confused” and “Kashmir” let me enjoy living in a way I hadn’t experienced to that point.

I mean this last point literally, because Led Zeppelin ended what I might call my “desert years” of music interests, when I had none whatsoever. I listened to some Backstreet Boys in the late 1990s, but from around 2000 to 2005, I was not only disinterested in music, but I actively disliked it. I would get into the car with my parents and become angered at hearing the radio and ask that they turn it off.

I was a super fun kid.

Around the age of 14 is also apparently when people start incorporating their musical interests into their actual identities. Scientific research points to growth hormones as the reason for this, the cause of people feeling so seriously about their music that they see it as symbiotic with themselves.

That also resonates with me. From 2005 to 2007, you would have thought Led Zeppelin was of my own making. I needed to let everyone know about them, in case people hadn’t heard the word 30 years earlier. I wore the t-shirts, bought the posters, and blasted the music from my parents’ front porch to show off to the neighbors (who were all 75 years old and didn’t care anyway).

Musical Interests Solidify around 24 Years Old

For me, Led Zeppelin turned out to be the gateway drug to all the other major actors of Western classic rock, from the Doors to the Who to AC/DC to Steve Miller and Van Halen. I consumed all of this heavily from ages 14 through 16, after which my interests began shifting to grunge and heavy metal and other harder stuff. Of course, the shifts only continued from there.

Here again, I fit nicely into scholarly research suggesting that musical tastes change and flow frequently until we turn about 24 years old. At about that age, we seem to know exactly what we like and what we would like if we heard it (though there is always time to pick up a new artist or genre, no matter our age). In 2015, at age 24, I picked up the blues and haven’t put them down again.

I will eventually pen a love letter to that genre here, but let’s move on.

3.  Our Personalities and Psyches Inform Our Musical Tastes

The last research item to discuss here is the assertion that our personal characteristics and modes of thinking influence our musical preferences.

To this point, I recommend the fascinating 2003 paper “The Do Re Mi’s of Everyday Life: The Structure and Personality Correlates of Music Preferences,” written by Peter J. Rentfrow and Samuel D. Gosling of the University of Texas at Austin.

The authors lament that so little research has actually been done on the psychological components of music and what our musical tastes say about us as individuals. Rentfrow and Gosling rightly claim that music is as deserving of scientific inquiry as any other subject due to its omnipresence in just about everyone’s lives. Granted, many people see music as nothing more than entertainment with a good beat, or something to pass the time.

However, for those who care enough about their music to, say, create a blog about it, let’s get into this subject.

Rentfrow and Gosling cite 1950s research asserting that musical tastes provide insights into a person’s unconscious, almost in the manner of Freudian dreams. That seems to be more of a dated and niche view now. The authors reference more recent research, from the 1980s and 1990s, that claims our music preferences are more indicative of our overt psychological characteristics.

Examples the authors provide include:

  • Fans of rock, punk, and heavy metal tend to enjoy sensations and mental arousal
  • Fans of bass-heavy music such as rap are often extroverts
  • Heavy metal fans are generally more aroused than country music fans when listening to their music

The real meat of Rentfrow and Gosling’s research is an experiment that divided up music genres into broad categories and then matched individuals’ musical preferences with personality traits. For instance, fans of “reflective and complex” musical genres, such as classical and jazz, tended to be intelligent and liberal. Meanwhile, people who enjoyed “energetic and rhythmic” music such as soul and funk were said to be extroverted, liberal, agreeable, and talkative.

head with musical notes

Now, that’s just one experiment that attempted to get at the correlations between musical interests and personality, and I think it sheds fascinating light on the subject. But no such experiment can ever be all-encompassing in determining what our favorite music says about us. Sometimes, all it says is that we like that music.

For instance, I would place most of my favorite genres into the “reflective and complex” category, suggesting I am an introvert (which I assure you I am). I also adore James Brown, Parliament, Rick James, and other kinds of funky dance music. Does that make me an extrovert as well as an introvert? No. It means I like different music genres.

How, then, should we think about this kind of research? I think it serves as more of a guide than a set of rules, as if to say, “Here is a good place to start in understanding the intersection of music and the mind.”

Other studies have researched music preferences as they relate to thinking styles. The results come out more or less the same: empathetic people seem to enjoy introspective music such as folk and R&B, while people who think more logically and even mathematically tend to focus on structured music such as jazz.

Once again, scientific experiments such as these are true gifts to those of us who care, but I don’t believe there is any one way to interpret what every person’s musical interests say about what lies in the brain. Yes, it’s possible and maybe even likely that blues, jazz, and classical fans will be quiet and introspective, but what if they just like the music for the music?

Final Thoughts

It’s been fun to chart a sort of logical pathway of how musical tastes form and take hold in our minds. I have long been interested in this subject and learned a lot in researching and writing this. Part of me does think about music in these scientific and scholarly ways. The question “Why do we like the music we like?” flashes across my mind probably once every few weeks. I enjoy having some semblance of an answer now.

At the same time, other questions remain. “Why do we like music at all?” I know there are answers to that, surface-level ones and deeper ones. “What would happen to my mind if I permanently isolated myself from all music or anything representing a beat?” We could ask prisoners in solitary confinement about that. Those are inquiries for another time.

For now, I am satisfied with the research I’ve done. It means I can enjoy my Buddy Guy, Art Blakey, James Brown, and Bernstein-conducting-Beethoven while benefiting from knowing what it all may suggest about me. Just don’t go calling me an extrovert.

6 Comments

  1. Ute Niebuhr

    Hey Micheal, just read your Blog… faszinierend… nice to read this.
    Hope more next time. 💖.
    You know…Love MK, Beatles, Bowie, Parts of Phil collins, Joan Beaz , Contrymusik and some German Anti-warsongs… and Musical… Rocky horror show, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, West side story…. and Klassik Carmen and Some parts of Mozart and Verdi….
    Greatings Utili

    • Michael

      Thank you for reading, Utili! We share a lot of the same musical interests from half a world away. Definitely will be talking about the master MK very soon 🙂

  2. Nich

    This is a really great piece. I lol’ed at the “super fun kid” line, and a few others.
    I was reminded of one of my early pieces on my own site, I have lots of ideas and (probably bad) presumptions about collecting music. I didn’t break down genres, but more of the art/science of collecting hard copies of music we love. (If you’re piqued by that, here’s a link: https://www.re-critic.com/thewords/2017/10/29/the-perfection-index )
    Anyway, congrats on the blog, this seems like a fantastic intro. Cheers!

    • Michael

      Perfect, Nich! Thanks so much for reading my blog in its infancy stage. I appreciate your time. Stay tuned for more if you liked this! And thanks for the link. I’ve checked out your work from Instagram and will enjoy reading the content that you write in more detail!

  3. Mary R

    What an eye-opening ,wonderful Explanation of music you have written here. Personally I never thought of that question you asked. Normally, I would think that someone who like to listen to the heavy-metal music and that type of genre would be a rough tough type of person. Yeah I know someone like that type of music and he’s anything but that.
    How about this question: why do certain genre of music make us happy or sad? I can listen to a certain type of song and break down in tears. Another type of song can make me start dancing around the room.
    I enjoyed reading this blog and look forward to reading more from you. You are an excellent writer. I’m also a Frank Sinatra and polka music fan So I am a diverse music lover. I do have a small request of you you poserd an interesting question within your blog: What would happen to someone’s mind if they didn’t listen to music at all? That will be an interesting subject to tackle.

    • Michael

      Thank you for reading! Yes, tons of subjects to explore in the future.

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