Songs that Speak to Us: Personality Predicts Lyrical Preferences
Music is a very personal thing. From black metal to blues, from Chicago house to contemporary pop, music fans view their tastes as reflecting and revealing something meaningful about themselves. But what is it about a given piece of music that makes us feel this way? What determines whether a particular piece of music is “right” for us? To answer these questions, we conducted research to examine how personality relates to people’s musical preferences.
Psychologists who study personality are interested in the things that make us unique: the constellation of psychological characteristics that determine who we are and make us different from other people. Today, the dominant psychological theory of personality is the so-called “five-factor model,” which proposes that five personality traits—extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience—capture most of the important ways in which people differ from one another. According to the five-factor approach, the extent to which you embody each of these traits is what makes you “you” and not someone else.
The big five traits have been shown to be strongly related to our personal preferences, such as our preferences for certain potential romantic partners and consumer brands. Importantly, personality psychologists also believe that we select and structure our environments so that they are compatible with our personalities. This means that we choose our friends, decorate our homes, and engage in our various hobbies partly because they fit with our distinctive characteristics and fulfill our personal needs. Viewed in this way, our music preferences may also reflect aspects of our personality and reflect an unconscious attempt to increase our personal fulfilment.
Research in the area of personality and music preference supports this idea. Looking at people’s preferences for particular genres of music, researchers have found that individuals who are high in openness to experience—people who are highly curious and who value having a variety of experiences—are more likely to prefer reflective and complex music, such as jazz and folk, as well as intense and rebellious music, such as punk and metal. But they tend not to be fans of upbeat and conventional music such as pop, which is preferred by people who are high in extraversion. Rock tends to be favored by people who are low in conscientiousness, which is consistent with “rock and roll” themes of spontaneity and rebellion.
Although personality is clearly linked to people’s musical preferences, a recent meta-analysis—in which researchers collated the results of many studies on this topic—found that the relationships between personality traits and preferences for particular genres are weak. As a result, researchers have examined other ways in which personality might manifest in musical preference, such as in the ways people use music. For example, people high in neuroticism, who are prone to experiencing negative emotions, are more likely to use music to regulate their mood, whereas people high in openness to experience are more likely to use music for intellectual stimulation.
Our research built on these findings by examining the relationships between personality traits and another important feature of non-instrumental music: the lyrics. To do this, we asked research participants to name their top 20 favorite songs on their device or music app and then obtained the lyrics for these songs from popular music websites. We then used specialized software to analyze the features of the lyrics, computing how often certain types of words occurred in the lyrics of the songs that participants liked.
We then analyzed the data to examine whether people with particular personalities tended to prefer songs with lyrical content that was compatible with their personalities. The results supported this notion. For example, extraverts preferred songs with lyrics that express positive emotions, whereas participants high in neuroticism preferred songs whose lyrics have fewer positive emotions. Conscientious participants preferred songs whose lyrics described achievement and also liked those with reflective, thoughtful lyrics. Overall, we found a large number of connections between personality characteristics and preferences for lyrical features. Furthermore, many of these relationships were not due to other possible reasons for preferring songs, such as acoustic features and potential uses of music.
Together, these findings provide further evidence that people create environments that are compatible with their personalities, as lyrics are a way in which music can fit a person’s unique character. Brian Eno, the ambient composer and former member of Roxy Music, famously claimed that music could—and should—be used to create atmospheric moods, akin to a form of interior design. It seems that, at least on an unconscious level, we use music in exactly this way: building an environment that reflects and supports our personal psychological characteristics.
For Further Reading
Qiu, L., Chen, J., Ramsay, J.E., & Lu, J. (2019). Personality predicts words in favourite songs. Journal of Research in Personality, 78, 25-35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2018.11.004
Rentfrow, P.J., Goldberg, L.R., & Levitin, D.J. (2011). The structure of musical preferences: A five-factor model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(6), 1139–1157. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022406
Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Furnham, A. (2007). Personality and music: Can traits explain how people use music in everyday life? British Journal of Psychology, 98(2), 175–185. https://doi.org/10.1348/000712606X111177
Jonathan E. Ramsay is Senior Lecturer of Psychology at James Cook University, Singapore.