Music Psychology: The Power of Vibrational Frequency

Have you ever wondered why you have a complete disdain for specific styles of music?

This interesting phenomenon has been the subject of scientific inquiry, hoping to uncover the mystery as to why our musical preferences seem to be predetermined.

music psychology

Music is vibration.

Music is vibration. Therefore, are we attracted to the vibrational frequency that different types of music send out?

That would be simple and make logical sense. Unfortunately, the answer to our main question as to why we are attracted to certain types of music isn’t so easily answered nor as new-age. Science has developed a field of study for our topic called; Psychology of Music Preference of PMP. Citing that numerous scientific studies have been conducted to showcase how individual personality can have the majority effect on our music preference, mostly using the Big Five personality traits (The five traits are openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism). The studies surrounding PMP tend to show that our personality is the key factor for how we select the music we gravitate toward. Our personality can be a complex web of habits, conditioning and genes. As a result, it is tough to how far back you can trace the actual origin of our individual musical preference. For example, if you are an introvert, with organization tendencies, and your mother played a musical instrument, you will most likely be attracted to a style of music directly associated with those traits. We can learn a lot about what we like by studying where we came from.

Other factors outside of personality are heavy factors into determining how and why we like certain types of music. Those factors include; environment, situation, mood, self-view, impactful life event, age, gender, season, and familiarity. All of these factors will still reference back to the personality due to that being our main reference for everything. Our ethics, goals, life-view, and how we deal with stress are all bounced to our personality – at lightening speed – for approval or disapproval of validity. Therefore, we can safely say that the main measurable factor in why we like or dislike certain styles of music is a direct link to the many components that construct our personality.

Various questionnaires have been created to both measure the big five personality traits and musical preferences. The majority of studies attempting to find the correlation between personality and musical preferences administered questionnaires to measure both traits. Others used questionnaires to determine personality traits, and then asked participants to rate musical excerpts on scales such as liking, perceived complexity, emotions felt, and more.

In general, the plasticity traits (openness to experience and extraversion) affect music preference more than the stability traits (agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness), but each trait is still worth discussing. The personality traits have also been shown to correlate significantly with the emotional effect music has on people. Individual personality differences can help predict the emotional intensity and valence derived from music. – Rentfrow, Peter J.; Gosling, Samuel D. (1 January 2003). “The do re mi’s of everyday life: The structure and personality correlates of music preferences.”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

The Big Five Personality Trait Analysis:

  1. Openness: Those that score high with having the most in the Openness trait will like music that challenges the status quo. Of all the traits, openness to experience has been shown to have the a great effect upon genre preference. In general, those rated high in openness to experience prefer more complex and novel music like classical, jazz, and eclecticism. (weigenhaft, Richard L. (1 January 2008). “A Do Re Mi Encore”. Journal of Individual Differences / Nusbaum, E. C.; Silvia, P. J. (7 October 2010). “Shivers and Timbres: Personality and the Experience of Chills From Music”. Social Psychological and Personality Science)
  2. Extraversion: As you might assume extraverts will like more energetic music that — think of these individuals pulling you out on to the dance floor for that song they swear is “their jams”. Extraversion is another good predictor of music genre preference and music use. Energetic extroverts have been linked to preferences in happy, upbeat and conventional music, as well as energetic and rhythmic music, such as rap, hip hop, soul, electronic, and dance music. (Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas; Fagan, Patrick; Furnham, Adrian (1 January 2010). “Personality and uses of music as predictors of preferences for music consensually classified as happy, sad, complex, and social.”. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts / Langmeyer, Alexandra; Guglhör-Rudan, Angelika; Tarnai, Christian (1 January 2012). “What Do Music Preferences Reveal About Personality?”. Journal of Individual Differences)
  3. Agreeableness: Those that have a high score in Agreeableness will like the emotionally rich music. Even if the music isn’t intensely emotional, agreeables will innately find the emotional content to connect to. Agreeable individuals preferred upbeat and conventional music. Additionally, listeners with high agreeableness displayed an intense emotional response to music which they had never before listened to. (Langmeyer, Alexandra; Guglhör-Rudan, Angelika; Tarnai, Christian (1 January 2012). “What Do Music Preferences Reveal About Personality?”. Journal of Individual Differences / Ladinig, Olivia; Schellenberg, E. Glenn (1 January 2012). “Liking unfamiliar music: Effects of felt emotion and individual differences.”. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts)
  4. Neuroticism: This might surprise you but Neurotics tend to like what everyone else likes. You might assume that Neurotics like “their own style” or something of that nature. But instead they tend to like what’s on the radio. The more neurotic a person is, the less they like intense and rebellious music (such as rock and heavy metal), but prefer upbeat and conventional music, like country, sound tracks, and pop music. Additionally, neuroticism is positively correlated with emotional use of music. (Langmeyer, Alexandra; Guglhör-Rudan, Angelika; Tarnai, Christian (1 January 2012). “What Do Music Preferences Reveal About Personality?”. Journal of Individual Differences / Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas; Fagan, Patrick; Furnham, Adrian (1 January 2010). “Personality and uses of music as predictors of preferences for music consensually classified as happy, sad, complex, and social.”. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts / hamorro-Premuzic, Tomas; Gomà-i-Freixanet, Montserrat; Furnham, Adrian; Muro, Anna (1 January 2009). “Personality, self-estimated intelligence, and uses of music: A Spanish replication and extension using structural equation modeling.”. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts)
  5. Conscientiousness: When you think of someone that is conscientious you might think of someone that is aware of more than others. This person might find new or different ways of expressing themselves by going against the grain of the norm. Conscientiousness is negatively correlated with intense and rebellious music, such as rock and heavy metal music. While previous studies have found a relationship between conscientiousness and emotional regulation, these results do not apply cross culturally- specifically, researchers did not find this relationship in Malaysia. (Langmeyer, Alexandra; Guglhör-Rudan, Angelika; Tarnai, Christian (1 January 2012). “What Do Music Preferences Reveal About Personality?”. Journal of Individual Differences / Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas; Swami, Viren; Furnham, Adrian; Maakip, Ismail (1 January 2009). “The Big Five Personality Traits and Uses of Music”. Journal of Individual Differences)

The Structure of Musical PreferenceScientific Findings

Delsing et al., 2008Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003 Peter J. RentfrowLewis R. Goldberg, and  Daniel J. Levitin (J Pers Soc Psychol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2012 Jun 1. Published in final edited form as: J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 Jun; 100(6): 1139–1157.  doi:  10.1037/a0022406)


When listening to our favorite songs, our body betrays all the symptoms of emotional arousal.

The present research replicates and extends previous work on individual differences in music-genre preferences, which suggested four to five robust music-preference factors. We examined a broad array of musical styles and assessed preferences for several pieces of music. The results from three independent studies converged, revealing five dimensions underlying music preferences. Although the pieces of music used in Study 1 were completely different from those used in Studies 2 and 3, the findings from all three studies revealed five clear and interpretable music-preference dimensions: a Mellow factor comprising smooth and relaxing musical styles; an Urban factor defined largely by rhythmic and percussive music; a Sophisticated factor composed of a variety of music perceived as complex, intelligent, and inspiring; an Intense factor defined by loud, forceful, and energetic music; and a Campestral factor comprising a variety of different styles of country and singer-songwriter music. Each of these factors resemble those reported previously, and the high degree of convergence across the present studies and previous research suggests that music preferences, whether for genres of musical pieces, are defined by five latent factors.

The findings from Study 4 extend past research by informing our understanding of why particular musical styles covary. Indeed, we found that each factor has a unique pattern of attributes that differentiates it from the other factors. For instance, Sophisticated music is perceived as thoughtful, complicated, clear sounding, quiet, relaxing and inspiring, whereas Mellow music is perceived as thoughtful, clear sounding, quiet, relaxing, slow, and not complicated. The results from this study also suggest that preferences for the MUSIC factors are affected by both the social and auditory characteristics of the music. Specifically, musical attributes accounted for significant proportions of variance in preferences for the Mellow, Urban, Sophisticated, Intense, and Campestral music factors, over and above music genres. These results suggest that preferences are influenced by both the social connotations and by particular auditory features of music.

It goes without saying that music is important to people. Curiously, however, we know very little about why it is so important. To shed some light on this issue, we need a sturdy framework for conceptualizing and measuring musical preferences. The present research provides a foundation on which to develop such a framework. Future research can build on this foundation by including a wider array of music from various genres and exploring music preferences across generations, cultures, and social contexts. Such work will serve to inform our understanding of the nature of music preferences and its importance in people’s lives.

When listening to our favorite songs, our body betrays all the symptoms of emotional arousal. The pupils in our eyes dilate, our pulse and blood pressure rise, the electrical conductance of our skin is lowered, and the cerebellum –a brain region associated with bodily movement – becomes strangely active. Blood is even re-directed to the muscles in our legs. (Some speculate this is why we begin tapping our feet.) In other words, sound stirs us at our biological roots… – Jonah Lehrer, WIRED Magazine “The Neuroscience Of Music”

Which are you? Or, are you several of these combined? You should be able to easily piece together yourself by your association with one or more of the traits above. If you aren’t positive in the fashion for which you are self-judging your personality, ask a close friend or family member to help you with your trait analysis for a more accurate outcome.

Does the music you like match the personality trait(s) you’ve selected? If not, then this might be a case of momentary venture into new areas of music. This also might signal a life change or possibly a shift in your personality.

Another possibility for a change in music preference could be due to situations changing or arising in your life that are connected to something emotional. Emotional triggers are what deeply connect our personalities to our daily behaviors.

Structural psychological cues based in emotion span all musical traditions include dimensions such as pace, volume, and timbrance. Fast tempo, for example, is typically associated with happiness, regardless of a listener’s cultural background. (Kwoun, S. (2009). “An examination of cue redundancy theory in cross-cultural decoding of emotions in music”. Journal of Music Therapy)

Situations have been shown to influence individual’s preferences for certain types of music. Participants in a study from 1996 provided information about what music they would prefer to listen to in given situations, and indicated that the situation greatly determined their musical preferences. For example, melancholic situations called for sad and moody music, while an arousal situation would call for loud, strong rhythm, invigorating music. (North, Adrian; Hargreaves, David (1996). “Situational influences on reported musical preference”. Psychomusicology) 

music psychology

There has been vast amounts of research in neuroscience to suggest memory plays a pivotal role in determining our personal musical preference.

There has been vast amounts of research in neuroscience to suggest memory plays a pivotal role in determining our personal musical preference. This is why in several studies and eye-witness accounts music can be performed by patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Without any apparent prompting, patients with these neurological conditions can perform complete songs, even containing lyrics. Neuroscientific evidence suggests that memory for music is, at least in part, special and distinct from other forms of memory. The neural processes of music memory retrieval share much with the neural processes of verbal memory retrieval, as indicated by functional magnetic resonance imaging studies comparing the brain areas activated during each task. Both musical and verbal memory retrieval activate the left inferior frontal cortex, which is thought to be involved in executive function, especially executive function of verbal retrieval, and the posterior middle temporal cortex, which is thought to be involved in semantic retrieval. However, musical semantic retrieval also bilaterally activates the superior temporal gyri containing the primary auditory cortex. (Schulkind, M. D.; DallaBella, S.; Kraus, N.; Overy, K.; Pantey, C.; Snyder, J. S.; Tervaniemi, M.; Tillman, M.; Schlaug, G. (2009). “Is Memory for Music Special?”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences  / Groussard, M.; Rauchs, G.; Landeau, B.; Viader, F.; Desgranges, B.; Eustache, F.; Platel, H. (2010). “The neural substrates of musical memory revealed by fMRI and two semantic tasks”. NeuroImage)

“Any perceptual quality you have is there for some biological reason. They evolved because they provide useful information to us. So if you take a microphone out in nature and ask what the tonal sounds are in our environmental niche that we would have evolved to appreciate, the tonal sounds you record are nearly all animal vocalizations. And the ones that count the most are the vocalizations of other humans. Rock is especially popular because it emphasizes the musical intervals whose frequency relationships are those we hear in the human speech. That’s one of the reasons people like it so much.” -Dale Purves, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology at Duke University and director of the Duke-NUS Neuroscience Program in Singapore

The field of Zoomusicology is an existing field of study that dates back to George Herzog in 1941 in where scientists study music of non-human animals, or rather the musical aspects of sound or communication produced and received by animals. Professor of Musicology and Semiotics at Helsinki University Dario Martinelli defined Zoomusicology as the “aesthetic use of sound communication among animals.”

We find that we can be (and possibly have been) psychologically programmed toward certain styles of music. For example, we are programmed to psychologically understand “happy” and “sad” music. The two main chord and scale types are major and minor. Major chords tend to sound positive or happy, while minor chords are spooky and sad. Researchers visited a culturally isolated native tribe in Cameroon to see if they had the same perceptions of “happy” and “scary” music as we do. Even though their music was nothing like ours and their civilization had not yet progressed to the Nickelback phase, they identified the emotional core of songs the same way we would. When exposed to piano selections in the major keys, they were more likely to point to pictures of smiling faces; when presented with songs in the minor keys, they were more likely to point to sad or fearful faces. (Cracked / International Development at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management)

Science has also depicted that our music preferences are completely sealed by adolescence. Neuroscientist and music expert Daniel Levitin cites that we are permanently locked in to the music we most enjoy before we reach age 16.  At age 10, you start to delete out the music that doesn’t fit with your what you deem as “good” music. Two years later at age 12, you begin to use those newly formed preferences to figure out your place in the world. By age 14, for the most part, your musical preferences are locked in due to the firming up of your personality.

Interesting Fact: Both Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney were 14 when they were first exposed to Elvis, and both cited that exposure as the fuse that lit their world-changing careers. When the Beatles hit The Ed Sullivan Show, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel were all age 14, presumably watching it on TV. (Cracked Magazine)

I hope by this juncture you have a better understanding of why you like the music you do. My hope is that you enjoy more of what you like and take time to taste other genre. The best part of music listening is the expansion into areas that expand your palette. When you do this, your brain will start to wire new neurons and synapses. After this has happened you will initiate increased creative and imaginative thinking that will bring new answers to problems you’re dealing with. And, you never know; the new styles you find appealing may surprise, entice and entrance you for the rest of your life.

-Thomas McGregor

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