When it comes to psychology, there’s no shortage of ways to describe and understand personality. Open to experience, extroverted, agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable, quiet and serious, enthusiastic, original, direct, cautious, inspirational, steady…you get the idea.

And it seems that knowing something about the type of music one prefers may be an effective window into understanding some types of personality. Of course, you can give someone a cumbersome personality test, but that’s not nearly as much fun as peeking into someone’s iPod, as a way of getting to know someone, is it?

How Does Your Brain React to Music?
Before you start scrolling through your buddy’s playlist, it might be useful to look at what brain function studies tell us about the brain. You see, there is science behind it all. Our brain’s motor cortex is involved in movement, foot tapping, and dancing while our amygdala is involved with our emotional reactions to music.  Our sensory cortex provides us with tactile feedback from playing an instrument or dancing, and our auditory complex gives us the perception and analysis of tones. Finally, our hippocampus is involved in our being able to recall and have memory for music.

Parts of the brain that react to music.  amygdala-hippocampus

How is Music Tied to Personality?
Now, of course you aren’t going to ask that person you are interested in getting to know to fill out a personality assessment or take a quick jog over to the nearest ER for a brain scan. You can read body language, make some judgment about their physical appearance, groom and clothing style. But a psychological study of primarily younger-aged subjects found that the most popular topic that same- and opposite-sex pairings talk about is music, followed by books, movies, TV, football and clothing (Rentfrow and Gosling, 2006).

In the study, musical preferences demonstrated reasonably accurate abilities in conveying some aspects of personality. Many theories are given as to why people prefer one genre of music over another. Some find one type of music leaves them feeling relaxed, while other use specific genres of music to pump them up. Some listen to one genre over another because they believe it helps them identify with a group or promotes a certain self-identity. Our brain’s motor cortex, amygdala, sensory cortex, auditory cortex and hippocampus are all part of our physiological responsiveness.

Not all personality traits are easy to identify through musical preference. For instance, openness to experience, extraversion and emotional stability are the easiest to guess correctly. On the other hand, music preferences don’t seem to say much about whether a person is conscientious or not.

What Does Your Favorite Music Say About Your Personality?
As for specifics, the research found some surprising and perhaps even debatable results. Extraverts seem to prefer vocals, while country music with all of its heartache is a preference among the most emotionally stable and hard-working. If jazz is pouring out of those headphones, it’s likely an intellectual with high self-esteem, who’s creative, outgoing and often at ease, may be listening. Rap fans were found to have high self-esteem and be outgoing, while dance fans were found to be creative, outgoing and not particularly gentle. Pop music aficionados are often filled with high self-esteem, are deemed to be hard-working, outgoing and gentle, but not typically creative or at ease. Finally, rock/heavy metal fans were found to have lower self-esteem , to be creative and to be at ease people, as well as not hard-working, not especially outgoing and frequently gentle.

Of course there are exceptions to these, and all research findings. But the data does indicate that different types of musical genre preferences can be helpful in sorting out some basic personality types.

Music Background With Different Genres and Types

At the same time, different music genres have different tempos which impact behavior, especially when exercising. Therefore, the tempo one prefers may not necessarily be related to personality but to an effect one wants while running or working out in the gym.

Whether you tune in music to relax you, build focus, drown out fatigue, block distractions, set a romantic mood, or pump you up to get moving on the track or to knock down your to-do list, sharing the type of music you choose and/or the bpm’s may be giving off signals about you. And that could just be about the best thing you could do if you want to reach out to that interesting looking person sitting next to you at the coffee shop, on the plane, in the student center or at the gym.

What’s your favorite genre of music? Do you think it aligns with your personality traits? Let me know in the comments below.

Post contributed by Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D.  Dr. Mantell has served as a long-time Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and today is the Senior Fitness Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for the American Council on Exercise, a behavioral sciences coach, an author and a national fitness-health speaker. In 2013, Greatist.com named Dr. Mantell as one of “The 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness.”