What counts as music to one person, sounds to another like a headache. Some of the difference is explained by our personalities (for instance, more open-minded people prefer classical) and our thinking style (systematisers prefer heavy metal more than empathisers). What’s not been examined before now, according to a paper in Personality and Individual Differences, is the biological basis of our musical tastes.
Hirokazu Doi at Nagasaki University and his colleagues asked 76 young Japanese adult participants, including 39 women, to listen to, and rate their enjoyment of, twenty-five 15-second musical excerpts. The clips were examples from five musical dimensions based on a system developed by the British psychologist Peter Rentfrow: Mellow (smooth and relaxing); Contemporary (including rap, funk, and acid jazz); Sophisticated (classical etc); Intense (loud, forceful and energetic); and Unpretentious (country and singer-songwriter genres).
The participants also completed a personality questionnaire and provided saliva samples which were analysed for testosterone.
Among the men only, there was an inverse correlation between their salivary testosterone level and their preference for sophisticated music (r=-.43). In the men, but not women, salivary testosterone also correlated positively with their personality scores on extraversion, openness-to-experience and agreeableness.
However, personality did not correlate with musical preferences and there was no evidence that the association between testosterone and musical preference was explained by the links between testosterone and personality.
“To the best of our knowledge, this the first demonstration of the link between biological predisposition and music preference,” the researchers said. They added that their finding “nicely dovetails” with previous biological research suggesting that higher testosterone is associated with rebelliousness and dominance, and other music research showing that young people see listening to classical music as a way to please authority figures.