If my twentieth high school reunion last year was any indication, we seem to hang on to the music we listened to as adolescents longer than any other time period. Everyone was dancing to “Purple Rain” and “Rock Lobster” like the music written in 1984 was the best ever written. A 1996 study confirmed this notion, finding that young adults express stronger preference ratings for music than older adults.
Take a look at a random sampling of accounts on MySpace, and you’ll see that nearly every member has a song associated with his or her account. It’s as if music somehow forms part of a person’s identity. But can music also help others get to know a person? Nearly every online dating web site asks participants to list their favorite songs, presumably so potential dating partners can use those preferences to make a character assessment. Are those assessments valid? Is music really a key way people — especially young people — learn if prospective mates are compatible?
Peter Rentfrow and Samuel Gosling designed a study to test those questions. In the first part of the study, they simply wanted to see if individuals meeting for the first time talked about music. They recruited sixty University of Texas at Austin students to interact with a randomly-assigned participant they had never met for six weeks on an online bulletin board. Independent raters analyzed the conversations to see how often music and six other topics (books, clothes, movies, TV, football, and other sports) were discussed.
The topics were selected based on a previous study by the same researchers, which had found these were the most popular conversation topics. Here are the results:
The graph compares conversations about music with an average of all the other conversation topics. But still, music was the most popular topic in 4 out of 6 weeks — even more popular than football, in Austin, during football season.
So given that music is such an important part of “getting to know each other” conversation, what is the music telling conversants about each other? For the second part of the experiment, a separate group of 74 students was asked to fill out a personality questionnaire, and also to make a list of their ten favorite songs. Since most participants found this task difficult, they researchers gave them time to think about their choices, and all participants returned a week later to make any modifications to their list.
For each participant, the researchers created a CD of their top ten songs. Now a new set of eight observers was recruited to listen to each of the 74 CDs (that’s right — 740 songs [actually more than that, because some participants listed albums instead of songs, in which case the researchers selected two representative songs from each album]). After listening to a CD, the observers then tried to predict the personality traits of the person who had picked the songs on that CD. Observers rated participants on the same scale they had used to rate themselves previously. How did the observers do? Rentfrow and Gosling compared the observers’ ratings of the participants to a similar study which had observers rate individuals’ personality based on videotapes and photographs. Here’s a summary of the results:
This chart shows how well the observer ratings correspond to some of the participants’ ratings of themselves in the two different studies (these correlations range from +1 to -1, with +1 being a perfect correlation and -1 being a perfect inverse correlation [opposite]). While videos and photos are good for assessing conscientiousness and extraversion, music preferences beat them in allowing observers to predict the participants’ own ratings of their agreeableness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. In all, observers’ ratings of participants were positively correlated with 14 different personality traits, including those listed above, as well as others such as forgiveness, imagination, and positive affect.
Rentfrow and Gosling argue that observers intuitively understand how personality relates to music preference along certain dimensions. They do point out that these results are limited to young adults, and since the music preferences of older adults aren’t as strong, the results might not replicate for that group. In any case, dating sites are probably doing the right thing in including musical taste as a relevant dimension for selecting a mate.
Unfortunately, explaining why, 20 years later, I still prefer the ’80s new wave music by the likes of Depeche Mode and The Human League to ’90s grunge or ’00s hip-hop will probably require significantly more study.
Rentfrow, P.J., & Gosling, S.D. (2006). Message in a ballad: The role of music preferences in interpersonal perception. Psychological Science, 17(3), 236-242.