Why do people have different tastes in music? A music education expert explains why some songs are universally liked, while others aren’t

Instruments and musical notes arranged over a keyboard

by Jane Kuehne, Auburn University, [This article first appeared in The Conversation, republished with permission]

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskidsus@theconversation.com.

Why do we have a certain taste in music, different than others? – Shirya R., age 11

When you turn on the radio, you might hear songs you like and other songs you just skip past. But even the songs you don’t like usually have some fans. Maybe you don’t like older music, but your parents or grandparents might love it because they grew up with it. It’s familiar and comfortable. When you’re older, you’ll likely return to music you love too.

As a music education professor who teaches music psychology, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about music preferences and how music weaves its way through people’s brains.

Some composers produce music with cross-generational appeal. Look at the song “True Colors,” which artists have remade time and time again. It was originally released in 1986 by Cyndi Lauper.

Ten years later, Disney World’s Epcot used it as part of a pre-show video. Ten years after that, it made its way to our ears again as part of the “Trolls” movie. Now, if you scour the internet, you’ll find lots of covers of this song.

How can this one song appeal to many different people over time, while other songs do not? Why do some people have wildly different tastes in music, even while certain songs can unite people from a variety of backgrounds and generations?

‘True Colors’ from the movie ‘Trolls,’ starring Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick.

Researchers have looked at how music works in the brain. They suggest people like music with unexpected twists and turns, which sometimes cause pleasurable physical reactions or chills. This finding suggests that humans have created and listened to music over time because it is pleasurable or rewarding.

When you listen to music, you might get chills.

Emotions and personality

Some researchers suggest people experience emotions through music, or that they choose music based on what they want to feel. A 2011 study suggests musical preference may reflect the emotions people feel when listening to music, regardless of the music’s style.

Some people respond to mellow and relaxing music. Others’ emotions are triggered by classical-style music. Still others emotionally react to singer-songwriter music like country, folk and some pop music. Preferences for certain types or styles of music might come from the time and place they’re first heard, or it may simply be specific to each person, regardless of what’s going on around them.

Though people might like certain music at one point in their lives, their music preferences change over time based on their lived experiences. When you’re struggling through a tough time, you might choose music that reflects what you wish was happening and search for happy songs. On the flip side, sometimes people gravitate toward sad songs. People want to move through grief, so they may search for songs that help them make sense of their emotions.

However, people’s choices don’t account for the whole picture. Musical taste goes deeper than the music type or genre. People who like pop or rock music don’t all like the same pop or rock music.

Studies on personality and social media interaction suggest your musical tastes can tell others what kind of personality you have. If someone knows what kind of music you like, that might tell them something about your personality.

Other research suggests your music preferences mirror your unique personality. So, people who already know you may be able to suggest music that you would like to hear.

For example, those who are more open might prefer mellow, sophisticated music like Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?” or intense music like Imagine Dragons’ “Natural.”

The research found extroverts may lean toward contemporary music. Agreeable people prefer unpretentious music, like Garrett Kato & Elina’s “Never Alone.” Conscientious people lean toward unpretentious music or intense music like Marshmello’s “Power.” People who are more anxious might prefer many different types of music.

People may like music by artists they like, rather than how the music sounds. Some prefer music from artists who are like them, especially when they can view their profiles on social media.

Why does knowing what music others like matter? Knowing about different people’s musical preferences and personalities can bridge gaps between people with different personalities and identities.

The music people stream

A study of 765 million songs streamed by people worldwide revealed several reasons people listen to music. People’s preferences tended to change based on the time of day, their age and particular styles of music. Most people listened to more relaxing music at night but more intense music during the day.

Music streamed in Latin America often produced quicker physical and emotional reactions. Music streamed in Asia was usually relaxing. People who stay up later at night listened to less intense music. Depending on where participants lived, the length of the day also played a part in their music listening habits. In short, people’s environments and their individual moods shaped their preferences.

Harmony in the Brain: Unraveling the Neuroscience of Music.

So, why do we have different tastes in music? People have complex personalities, and the music they like may be related to this. People’s brains work in unique ways as they process music. Some may have a physical reaction to certain music, while others may not. People may like music because a musician’s views might be like their own views. That said, some songs surprise, intrigue and entertain a wide variety of listeners, which makes them universally liked.

The bottom line? Each person is unique in many ways, and their musical tastes reflect that uniqueness.

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Jane Kuehne, Associate Professor of Music Education, Auburn University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.