In the 2009 romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel)’s whirlwind romance begins when they discover that they both listen to the English rock band The Smiths. In a moment, Tom’s crush grows into an obsession: they both like The Smiths, so she must be his soulmate.

Of course, The Smiths have five platinum albums and more than six million listeners every month on Spotify, making Tom and Summer’s shared interest more coincidental than predestined. But many music fans can probably recall a similar moment. After all, what are the odds of finding someone who also appreciates the subtleties of both Chopin and Cher with equal fervor? Such rare and memorable encounters reveal how music can act as an instant social glue that can effortlessly create close bonds. And for this reason, we often seek out others who share their taste in music, using these preferences as a litmus test for compatible values, attitudes, and personalities.

How Do We Discover Others’ Music Tastes?

One way of discovering others’ taste in music is through casual conversations: In fact, music taste comes up more often than any other hobby or interest, including books, clothing, movies, and sports. But what if our taste in music is obvious from the way we look, even without our disclosure? Our research team tested this question by asking almost 4,000 people to look at photos of 289 individuals and guess their preferences for four types of music: energetic/rhythmic genres such as rap and electronica, intense/rebellious genres such as heavy metal and rock, reflective/complex genres such as classical and jazz, and upbeat/conventional genres such as pop and country. Some photos showed the person’s entire body, whereas others showed as little as the person’s eyes. Remarkably, data showed that people could guess whether someone liked energetic/rhythmic, intense/rebellious, and reflective/complex genres from just their appearance. In many cases, they could even tell by just looking at the person’s face, or even from their eyes and mouth.

But how do metalheads appear different from jazz aficionados? Of course, there are music fans who broadcast their love for an artist or a genre by wearing band merchandise, making their taste unambiguous. Others don hairstyles or accessories specific to a genre’s fandom. But these taste markers are rare and largely absent in our research. They would also fail to explain how someone might guess a person’s musical preferences by just looking at their face, eyes, or mouth.

Another way that we might guess what music people listen to is by first deducing their outward personality. People hold beliefs about whether a typical jazz listener or a metal fan should look more domineering or submissive, attractive or homely, energetic or tired, neat or disheveled, stylish or plain. Indeed, our data showed that people could guess the music taste of others because they expected that fans of reflective/complex genres (such as classical or jazz) would look more submissive and older, and that fans of upbeat/conventional genres (such as pop or country) would look submissive and more energetic. More importantly, these assumptions were often correct: fans of reflective/complex genres did look more submissive and older, and fans of upbeat/conventional genres did look submissive and energetic, even after accounting for taste differences by age, gender, and ethnicity.

Looking For Music Compatibility

If we really do use music preferences to gauge compatibility, then shouldn’t we be looking to meet people who enjoy the same music that we do? We also tested this by showing the photos of the people from the previous studies to a new group of people and asking the new group to rate how much they would like to meet the individuals in the photos. As expected, people wanted to meet others who seemed like-minded in their music taste. Fans of energetic/rhythmic genres and upbeat/conventional genres wanted to meet people who looked like they would also enjoy these genres—even though in many cases, the person didn’t actually share their taste.

Together, our findings echo the longstanding idea that music taste is born from tribalism and social need: war cries instilled fear and rallied groups, national anthems inspired patriotic pride, and counter-cultural songs prompted new values and reform. These genres evolved to reflect who we are and who we were, and we in turn reflect the music that moves us.


For Further Reading

Tian, L., Alaei, R., & Rule, N. O. (2021). Appearance reveals music preferences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672211048291

Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2003). The do re mi's of everyday life: The structure and personality correlates of music preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1236–1256. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.6.1236

Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2006). Message in a ballad: The role of music preferences in interpersonal perception. Psychological Science17, 236–242. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01691.x

 

Laura Tian is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. She enjoys reflective/complex and energetic/rhythmic music.