By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Lately, there are a lot of very smart people trying to figure out why we like the music we do.

For companies like Spotify, Apple or Pandora, that interest goes beyond idle curiosity and has become a business strategy. Mapping out what musical components, themes or sounds we respond to can help predict what new music we might enjoy.

But determining just what is in the music that resonates with some quality in us is far from easy. Our musical tastes are shaped by a number of external factors — exposure, peer and family influence, the activities we listen to music during — as well as internal preferences we have for rhythm, harmony, timbres, structure or lyrics.

Scientists and academic researchers have also devoted long hours into trying to figure out how our personality might predict our taste in music. One 2008 study out of Heriot-Watt University that profiled the personalities of different music fans found that classical listeners had high self-esteem and were creative, introverted and at ease. Interestingly this closely matched the profile of jazz fans with the exception that jazz lovers tended to be extroverts. Like classical fans, people who rated opera highly had high self-esteem and were creative but also gentle. Those three descriptions matched the personality type of participants who rates blues highly, except blues fans were also found to be outgoing and at ease.

The latest study in that line of research comes from a team at the University of Cambridge, led by Doctoral Candidate David Greenberg. Greenberg is a trained jazz saxophonist who wanted to go beyond personality and see whether our “cognitive style” might predict musical taste.

According to a theory authored by autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen who worked with Greenberg, brain types can be classified based on their scores in two areas of thinking: empathy and systemizing. People who score better in empathy focus and respond more to the emotion of others, while those who score higher in systemizing like to analyze rules and patterns in the world around them.

For the Cambridge study, more than 4,000 participants recruited through the myPersonality Facebook app were asked to complete a psychological questionnaire to determine their balance of both empathic and systemizing thinking. They next listened to 50 musical pieces from 26 genres and rated the pieces.

“Although people’s music choices fluctuates over time, we’ve discovered a person’s empathy levels and thinking style predicts what kind of music they like,” Greenberg said in a release on the study. “In fact, their cognitive style — whether they’re strong on empathy or strong on systems — can be a better predictor of what music they like than their personality.”

According to their results, an empathizer might gravitate to straightforward, unpretentious singer/songwriter styles like country or folk. They might also prefer mellower music like soft rock or R&B. Systemizers on the other hand were more likely to enjoy intense music like punk and heavy metal.

From a musical point of view, the study avoided a trap some others have fallen into. Genres of music are large and diverse, and the qualities and appeal of Giacomo Puccini is very different than that of John Cage. Realizing this, researchers in the Cambridge study also conducted a follow-up experiment where participants rated music from only a single genre (rock or jazz.)

Those results showed empathizers were interested more in low energy tracks, poetic or emotional depth and sad characteristics. Systemizers were interested in more complicated music with cerebral depth, positive emotions and animated, tense or high-energy qualities.

What that means in music terms is while an empathizer might prefer a ballad by Billie Holiday, a systemizer might gravitate toward John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”

From a classical perspective, the classical selections used in the study scored better for systemizers. Researchers recommended both Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in C and Alexander Scriabin’s Etude Opus 65 No 3 for audiences who scored higher in systemizing.

While on the surface that might suggest classical audiences might tend to better systemizers than empathizers, it’s worth noting that researchers found that different brain types responded more favorably to different musical attributes rather than genres. So while a systemizer might gravitate towards the logic and pattern of a Bach fugue, an empathizer could be more interested in something like Schubert’s Winterreise. However, though we might all be stronger in one area or the other, it is not a zero sum game, and there is no reason why you can’t enjoy both.

If you are curious just where you fall on the empathizing-systemizing scale, there are online tests. But if you are just looking for new music to enjoy, you can always just trust your ear.