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Effects of Personality on Music Preferences in Adolescents

Effects of Personality on Music Preferences in Adolescents

Music is a set of lyrics compositing of notes and rhythms which expresses a wide array of feelings which people can relate to, and it can influence people’s thoughts, emotions, especially mood (Knobloch and Zillmann, 2002). Researchers have shown interest in people’s musical preferences and individual difference variable that relates to personality traits (Cattell & Anderson, 1953; Dollinger, 1993; Little & Zuckerman, 1986; McCown, Keiser, Mulhearn, & Williamson, 1997; Robinson, Weaver, & Zillmann, 1996). Support has been found that people prefer listening to music that reflects specific personality characteristics (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003; Schwartz & Fouts, 2003).

“Music is important in the social and personal lives of adolescents” (Schwartz & Fouts, 2003). This importance is shown by the estimates of annual sales in the popular music market in the United States. Annual sales was at $10 billion in 1993 and over $12 billion in 1994 (Schwarts & Fouts, 2003), also with recent reports showing high sales figure. At at the same time, digital downloading of music has increased rapidly over the last few years (Recording Industry Association of America, 2006). Amongst the different age group, adolescents can be considered to be the most fanatic music adepts (Schwartz & Fouts, 2003).

Every person have a different inclination to different music style despite a general common fascination for music. Social factors such as ethnicity, social class (e.g. Frith, 1981; Gans, 1974), youth cultures, as well as individual factors such as personality, physiological arousal and social identity have been proposed to account for the heterogeneity of adolescents’ music preferences (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003; Zillman & Gan, 1997). Therefore, the music listeners are usually more inclined to a particular genre of music which reflects attributes such as their personal characteristics, needs or concerns that are being reflected in the music they choose of which the music also satisfies. For instance, outgoing people who in general likes to spend time with people and enjoy socializing will tend to enjoy music which will assist the social interactions with other people, such as popular music and party music. Likewise, individuals high on Openness to Experience, who have a desire for ‘variety, intellectual stimulation and aesthetic experiences’ (Costa & McCrae, 1988, p 261), may prefer a relatively “difficult” or obscure types of music. It can be seen that most of it is associated with Eysenck’s personality dimensions: extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism (Eysenck, 1958). Extraverts prefer usually homogenous, lively, emotional vigorous, sensual music, while introverts prefer intellectual, mystical, deep, introspective and restrained music (Burt, 1939; Klimas-Kuchtowa, 2000). In turn, psychoticism is significantly correlated with preferences for musical complexity. People with high levels of psychoticism prefer more complicated and complex pieces than people with low levels of psychoticism (Rawlings et al., 1995).

Researchers have been predominantly interested in adolescents and young adults who are experiencing major psychological issues and have found that they prefer heavier forms of music such as heavy metal and hard rock (Hansen and Hansen, 1990; Took and Weiss, 1994; Wass et al., 1989). It has been alleged that such a music preference reflects the values they hold, the conflicts which they might be facing, and developmental issues which these youths are dealing with at the moment.

The key principle of this present study is to examine and find the distinction between the personality characteristics and developmental issues of these three groups of adolescent listeners, i.e., those preferring heavy, light, and diverse music qualities.

Preference for Heavy Music

Heavy music is usually loud and fast consisting of strong beats with guitar and/or drums as its base, and expresses an array of stronger emotions such as anger and aggression. It typically includes styles such as hard rock, classic rock, heavy metal, and rap (Larson, 1995). Schwartz & Fouts(2003) have said that its themes are often driven by moral relativity, antiestablishment values, and hyper masculinity. Research with adolescents indicate that an inclination for heavy music is associated with being hypersexual, showing less respect, exhibiting greater criminal and antisocial interpersonal behaviour (Hansen and Hansen, 1990), and being more risk-taking or sensation-seeking (Litle and Zuckerman, 1986).

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Researchers have suggested that these relationships occur due to the correspondence between the theme of the music and the characteristics of the listener such as rejection of authority, hyperindividualism, acceptance of antisocial behaviour; (Arnett, 1991; Hansen and Hansen, 1990; Klein et al., 1993). Another reason would be the correspondence between the heavy music and the intensity of their feelings such as anger and aggression through its fast pace and pounding beats of the music.

Preference for light music

Light music ranges from slow, emotional ballads to rhythmic melodies designed for dancing. It includes styles such as pop and dance (e.g., Schwartz, 1992; Thompson and Larson, 1995). The lyrics explore developmental themes (Larson, 1995; Thompson, 1990) such as relationships, autonomy, identity and sociability. The connected emotions and views amplify the experiences of the listener, relieve their emotional concerns, and provide a form of justification for their feelings (Larson and Kubey, 1983; Roe, 1985; Rosenbaum and Prinsky, 1987).

It was expected that those preferring light music would possess personality traits and concerns which places an emphasis on independence and individuality, relationships, and sociability with other people. Distinctively, it was expected that they would be characterized as being cooperative, sociable, reflective (i.e., not impulsive), responsible, accepting of others and their families, and having confidence in their academic abilities. However, they may also develop other developmental issues associated with feeling insecure with themselves, often involving self-esteem, their developing bodies at the stage of puberty, sexual identities, and their acceptance by fellow peers. This profiling would be due to the themes and associative emotions in light music, and this in turn reflects and validates who they are and how they feel during this stage of development.

Preference for diverse music

This last group of adolescents are those who do not possess a strong preference for any particular genre of music, however, they do exhibit flexibility in their choice of genre during different times. For instance, music may be used to reflect of change their disposition and mood, depending on the circumstances, time and occasion. These adolescents are seen to be better adjusted and are adapting better to daily issues involving people around them, such as family and peers, and also better at coping with their developmental issues. It was also expected that adolescents having an inclination towards either heavy music or light music may be experiencing more problems and issues compared to those with a diverse taste in the different genres of music.


It can be concluded from the findings that adolescents like the kind of music which are able to satisfy certain needs which they have and which are able to express the feelings and/or emotion which each individual might be faced with. Getting to know the music preferences of adolescents may prove to be useful in assessing their world and the train of thoughts and emotions which they are going through. Being able to grasp their music preference will not only reflect the values, attitudes, and the feelings they experience (e.g., Avery, 1979; Mainprize, 1985; Steele and Brown, 1995), but also the success in negotiating developmental issues which might occur in their adolescent years while growing up.

However, it should be taken into account that the association between an individual’s personality and their music preference should not be seen fully as an entity of its own. This is because factors such as cognitive abilities, peer influence and social class (Marc, Tom, Rutger and Wim, 2008, p. 127) plays a role in the differing choices of music preferences each individual might have as well. This study is also in tune with other research, by Furnham, Trew, and Sneade (1999), showing that music as a means of stimulation may aid cognitive activity in extraverts, such as helping them to socialise with their peers using the common type of music the listen to.

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Research conducted by McCown et al. (1997) has emerged that traits such as psychoticism are positively correlated with preferences for works of music played back with amplified bass, which has a similar findings to this present study which links the type of personality adolescents usually possess when they have a strong inclination for heavy music.

This present study can be applied outside of this experiment as well. With this awareness of what effects a person’s personality has on different types of musical preferences, it can be largely significant in aiding the selection of music for therapeutic work. This is supported by many studies showing that music preferred by the client is comparable in its effectiveness to that chosen by the therapist, with regard to reduction of anxiety (Iwanaga & Moroki, 1999; Thaut&Davis, 1999).

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