Do you know why you prefer the music you prefer?

A study in press at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, carried out by Peter J. Rentfrow, Lewis R. Goldberg and Daniel J. Levitin suggests that our preferences for music are related with 5 different underlying factors.

Like with other art forms, we engage with music at many different levels. On the one hand, music emerges from a complex interaction of acoustic properties and auditory processes, but on the other it conveys emotions and has strong social connotations. One of the aims of researchers interested in musical preferences is to determine how people’s preferences for music are related with those levels. Some preferences might be influenced by music’s purely physical properties, like loudness, tempo, and so on, the emotion it conveys, or its social implications.

Rentfrow and colleagues’ objective was to characterize the underlying structure of affective reactions to music excerpts. To achieve this aim they performed four experiments. First, they assessed the preferences of a sample of Internet users for fragments of commercially released but unfamiliar pieces of music. Second, they repeated this process with a sub-sample of participants using new unreleased pieces of music. Third, they assessed the preference of a sample of university students for a subset of the new music pieces. Finally, the musical fragments were coded on a number of attributes that could be used to characterize each of the underlying preference factors.

The results of their first three experiments converge on the existence of 5 main factors underlying musical preference determined both by social connotations and particular auditory features: (i) Mellow, which comprises smooth and relaxing music; (ii) Unpretentious, including mostly singer-song writer music; (iii) Sophisticated, including music perceived as complex, intelligent and inspiring; (iv) Intense, with loud, energetic and forceful music; (v) Contemporary, which comprises rhythmic and percussive music.

Their fourth study revealed that each factor is characterized by a unique set of attributes that distinguishes it from the rest. Specifically, excerpts with high loading on the Mellow factor were perceived as slow, quiet, undistorted, romantic, relaxing, unaggressive, sad, simple and interesting. Unpretentious music is rated as undistorted, instrumental, loud, electric, not fast, somewhat romantic, relaxing, sad, unaggressive, not complicated, and not intelligent. Sophisticated includes mostly instrumental, not electric, not percussive, not distorted, not loud, intelligent, inspiring, complex, relaxing, romantic and unaggressive music. Intense music was perceived as distorted, electric, loud, percussive, dense, aggressive, not relaxing, not romantic, not intelligent, and not inspiring. Music with high loadings on the Contemporary factor was rated as percussive, electric, and not sad.

If one of neuroaesthetics’ aims is to clarify the biological underpinnings of people’s liking and preference for music, these results are of relevance for at least two reasons. First, researchers should probably take these factors into account when designing future studies. Second, it would interesting to ascertain the neurobiological concomitants of such factors, and to determine whether there are any differences among the neural correlates of the aesthetic experience of people whose preferences clearly differ across those factors.

Rentfrow, P. J., Goldberg, L. R., & Levitin, D. J. (2011, February 7). The Structure of Musical Preferences: A Five-Factor Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0022406

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