The Science of Music Stereotypes


As I retire for the day, I put on my favourite playlist: the title reads ‘For the Tired Soul’ (don’t judge me for the hyperbolic appropriation of emotions as yet), and on most days it contains songs by Ingrid Michaelson, Aron Wright, Sleeping at Last and The Fray – many of whom have understandably been featured in Grey’s Anatomy. I have another playlist called ‘Happy Songs’ which contains a hand-picked bouquet of tracks that define happiness for each of the seventeen friends who contributed to it. I like listening to this one largely because I am amused by the varied definitions of happiness people carry.

The crux is that I don’t particularly listen to one genre, period or artist. Unfettered access to music through streaming apps has fundamentally changed how I discover new music/artists/bands; new not necessarily to the world, but to me. So how can I confidently say that my proclivity to listen to rap and hip hop is owing to my psychopathic tendencies? How can someone conclude that I am a deeply empathetic human being, based on the sad songs playlist I mentioned before? When psychologists from Cambridge University make such connections, it seems to reinforce these stereotypes: researchers have found that those described as ‘empathisers’ seemingly prefer music that is romantic, relaxing, unaggressive, sad or slow. Genres that dwell in the intricacies of structure, like jazz or classical music, are the musical drug of choice for ‘systemisers’, the ones who are naturally inclined towards objective disciplines like maths or science.

Historically, similar studies have shown varying results: in 1986 an association between extraversion and an inclination towards rock music was established, while studies in 1993 found a link between extraversion and liking jazz; in 1997, the two variables were extraversion and pop music. A following series of studies in 2000 saw associations between extroverted traits and a palate for complex music such as jazz. Clearly, basing my belief and judgement of a person on music tastes will reap highly unreliable results. Does this mean that music preferences have evolved over time for the same personality traits? That seems utterly unlikely, and, honestly, balderdash. But so does blindly believing in the associations that have failed the test of universality.

It is a great idea – putting people in boxes – yet a highly inconvenient one; least of all because it solidifies stereotypes by apparently grounding them in science. It also overlooks the fact that, for most of us, musical choices are equally determined by the often-underrated lyrics. The acclaimed 2007 movie Music and Lyrics describes this undeniable sorcery of lyrics perfectly: “A melody is like seeing someone for the first time. The physical attraction. Sex. But then, as you get to know the person, that’s the lyrics. Their story. Who they are underneath. It’s the combination of the two that makes it magical”.

So, my parting question is this: in an age where machine learning algorithms of a streaming app decide what song you’ll hear next and AI churns out suggestions for your next ‘favourite artist’, would you let your musical preferences be the judge of your character?

[Kritika Narula]

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