Music and Stereotypes

by Madelyn Konsor |

Music is a huge part of our society and our identities. Music is everywhere, and most of us are very particular about what kind we want to hear. Different genres produce diverse reactions. We identify parts of our personality by what we listen to, and we insinuate things about other people based on their music preferences. Everyone knows the basic stereotypes; people who listen to rap like to do drugs and are in gangs, country music fans like beer and aren’t well educated, and classical music listeners have high IQs and are boring at a dinner party.

Do these stereotypes actually hold any truth to them? Some people say that they do, that music preferences can affect a person’s character. Music is a key part of a person’s life and can influence their personality, but that doesn’t mean that these stereotypes are always true.

Psychotherapist Jane Collingwood wrote an article for Psych Central, an independent psychiatric website, on research done by Professor Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK. He did a study and over the course of three years gathered data on the link between social and implied psychology and music. His research included 36,000 people from 60 countries rating different types of music. They also took a personality questionnaire so the professor could get a grasp on what the person was like.

Jane Collingwood reported “The results showed classical music fans have high self-esteem, are creative, introverted and at ease…Rap fans have high self-esteem and are outgoing…Country and western fans are hardworking and outgoing” (qtd. In Collingwood).

North is using his research to delve deeper into the question of why people have music preference so ingrained into their personal identity. Collingwood has quoted him saying “People may define their musical identity by wearing particular clothes, going to certain pubs, and using certain types of slang. So it’s not so surprising that personality should be related to musical preference. We really got the sense that people were selecting musical styles to like that match their own personality” (Collingwood). North claims that this is a good insight in why people are so passionate about their favorite genres and artists, and why people can bond over similar tastes.

He goes on to note how people who listen to different genres could be more similar than dissimilar. When discussing heavy metal fans versus classical fans, he says, “Younger members…go for heavy metal, while their older counterparts prefer classical. However, both have the same basic motivation: to hear something dramatic and theatrical, a shared ‘love of the grandiose’” (qtd. in Collingwood).

This is a great insight into how people identify so closely with their preferred music type. They aren’t able to see past differences in taste, that the fans may be more similar than dissimilar. It’s an interesting point that even two genres like heavy metal and classical, which are widely accepted to be polar opposite as far as music genres go, have listeners that are so alike.

People use music for a lot of different reasons, and in an essay published in the British Psychological Society Journal, written by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Adrian Furnham, a test was done to see if there was any difference in what people used music for. The psychology behind music, they say, has already been discussed. They wanted to know how the people who already identified with a certain artist or genre then used the music in their day to day lives.

The results showed that for the most part, people listened to music for three reasons; cognitive appreciation, emotional regulation, or background noise. People who listened for the cognitive appreciation were more likely to be open and highly intellectual with high IQ scores. The individuals who listened to music for emotional regulation, or to help reinforce a certain mood, tended to be more introverted and unconscientious. People who usually used music for background noise tended to need it to perform more successfully in social situations. This helps us understand more of the psychology behind musical preferences. This goes beyond genre vs. genre. This gives insight into how people use music beyond just a sense of identity.

In some cases, identifying with more than one music genre may be more beneficial than not. In a study done by Patrick Wong at Northwestern University, he studied these ‘bimusical’ people. His study included recruiting groups of people who mainly listened to western music throughout their lives, and another group who listened to both traditional Indian music and western music. He concluded that the people who grew up consistently listening to more than one type of music engaged a larger network of their brain while listening to music.

The article states, “He concluded that people who had grown up with both Indian and Western music had a more elaborate brain system for listening than those who grew up with just Western music…He says bimusicals looped in not only the auditory areas of the brain, but also its emotional region” (Research Shows Listening…).

Gigi Luk, an individual who studies bilingual learning at Harvard University, adds some interesting insight. “Our experiences, whether they’re musical or linguistic, actually shape our brain and give us a qualitative difference in brain networks,” (Research Shows Listening…). Luk touches on the topic that bimusicals are less likely to be culturally biased, and multiple studies show that they are less likely to show characteristics associated with fans of one specific type of music. She states that although there is a clear difference between bilingualism and bimusicalism, there is a promising link to the two, one that may help unlock a few answers as to how much of a physiological impact music leaves on an individual.

Although aspects of personality can be determined by someone’s music preference, sometimes stereotypes are just that: a stereotype. Sean Klein is a third year student studying Global Business at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He has kept up a 3.8 GPA since his freshman year, is involved in multiple sports and is a member of the school’s student senate. He is also a fan of rap music. Klein definitely doesn’t fit the bill of the stereotypical rap enthusiast.

When describing how he originally got into the genre, he said, “It started in middle school, when I started listening to music more. Rap was the stuff my friends were listening to, and it’s what they played at school dances so I associated that music with good vibes” (Klein). He feels that rap music really helps embody what is going on in society currently. He says, “I love how diverse rap music can be. It is really hard to manufacture a rap sound like you can with a pop song…you have to put more of your heart into those lyrics than you could with like a One Direction song…it sounds more real to me, I guess. It’s always sounded more real” (Klein). He doesn’t see himself getting categorized because of his music preferences.

When asked about how other people react to his music taste, he says, “There’s really no negative or positive reaction, there’s pretty much enough people in my peer group that also listen to the same music so I think people are pretty tolerant of what music you listen to” (Klein).

While Sean Klein is a great example of how a stereotypically violent genre might not leave a big impact on one’s personality, some researchers claim that the majority of the population might see some effects.

In order to see those effects, five experiments were done by Iowa State University researchers Craig Anderson and Nicholas Carnagey and Janie Eubanks from the Texas Department of Human Resources. They tested out the theory of whether violent song lyrics (mostly from the hip-hop and rap genre) made college students feel more hostile than college students who don’t normally listen to violent lyrics.

The experiments were essentially all the same, with a few variables changed for each. The changes included which types of cognition the study was focusing on, and the intensity of the song, e.g. if it was humorous. They brought in a group of college students and had them listen to songs with particularly violent lyrics, then take a series of psychological tests afterwards. These were compared to the personality and cognitive tests taken before the experiments started, in order to prove whether the students were more or less hostile due to the influence of the music.

The results were almost the same every time. The study states, “demonstrated that college students who heard a violent song felt more hostile than those who heard a similar but nonviolent song” (Anderson et al). This research shows that people to respond in a certain way to a specific music genre that directly affects their personality. The researchers noticed a trend, as well. “… college students who preferred rap and heavy metal music reported more hostile attitudes than students who preferred other genres of music, such as alternative, adult contemporary, dance-soul, or country” (Anderson et al). There is actual evidence behind the conventional images we may have about people who listen to a specific genre of music.

Dr. Jason Rentfrow, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Social and Developmental Psychology, is involved in ongoing research about the links between people’s personalities and their musical preferences. He did an experiment in London, England. In a video posted on the University’s website, he had a group of people of all various ages, backgrounds, and music preferences rate different genres and discuss the feelings the songs produced.

He then had them answer a personality questionnaire to understand what the person was like in relation to the music they normally liked to listen to. He also interviewed the participants about the stereotypes they may have heard about people who listened to specific genres of music.

What Dr. Rentfrow found out was completely fascinating. Rentfrow says, “I find that the characteristics that are associated with fans of certain styles of music, like punk, tend to be the very same characteristics associated with fans in other countries” (qtd. in “The Music in Me”).

He is able to see a direct correlation between how people tend to act and the music preferences they may have. He goes on to say, “So, someone who likes punk music and lives in London is going to be pretty similar to someone who likes punk music and lives in Tokyo” (qtd. in “The Music in Me”). The Cambridge professor also notes how stereotypes could be a stretched a little too far. “People who listen to heavy metal and punk music, much to my surprise, ended up being much more friendly, agreeable, and warm than the stereotype would have us believe” (qtd. in “The Music in Me”).

Rentfrow’s research delves into the idea that while people may see others by their stereotypes, they may not see themselves grouped into a single image. He says, “When I asked them whether they thought that the music they enjoyed said anything about who they are, they didn’t seem to think so.” He goes on to discuss what questions he asked the participants next in their interviews, “Yet, when I asked them whether or not other people’s music preferences said anything about who they are, they seemed to be pretty comfortable with that idea” (qtd. in “The Music in Me”).

It’s an interesting point that while people are very quick to throw others into a predetermined stereotype, they refuse to see themselves the same way. Rentfrow is doing amazing research with the psychology behind music preferences and personality, and he is persistent with the idea that one could use psychology to figure out the relationships our minds have to music.

Some people claim that music has the most impact through our emotions. A psychotherapist named Nathan Feiles goes into that theory in an article he wrote for the website Psych Central.  He says that people normally listen to certain types of music according to their mood at the time. Someone who is feeling angry might listen to more aggressive music or someone who is sad might listen to something slow and mellow.

He says, “Music also can be an effective coping strategy. We can listen to music that elicits emotions we want to feel in a given moment” (Feiles). He goes on to say if someone was feeling lazy and wanted to become more motivated, listening to upbeat music might help change their mood.

Feiles’ research discusses how much of an impact music has on one’s mood and emotion, which is exactly what psychotherapist Malini Mohana believes. Music is something that doesn’t need a translation to be understood completely. She says that music is known as a “language of emotion” across most cultures. It has to do more with emotion and feeling within the frontal lobe of the brain, the area responsible for personality and cognitive thinking.

She explains, “Music can be thought of as a type of perceptual illusion, much the same way in which a collage is perceived. The brain imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds that, in effect, creates an entirely new system of meaning” (Mohana). What she really means by that is music doesn’t need to explicitly say something in order for a specific meaning to be understood. People have the ability to create meaning through music that is unique only to them, or unique to a group of people.

Mohana goes on to talk about how fans of the same type of music or a specific artist can tend to have a group-wide acknowledgement of a certain meaning of a song, thus creating a common bond that brings that group closer together.  Mohana and Feiles both raise a good point about how much emotion we really feel when it comes to music. Being subjected to so many different feelings can influence what a person says or does, or how one acts on a daily basis. If music can impact one’s emotions and personality, can it influence more than that as well?

While the majority of researchers are claiming that music affects one’s personality, one claims that the music can also influence how people make decisions about relevant issues. Heather LaMarre, Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, and Gregory Hoplamazian did an experiment that tested this claim. They took ethnically white college students and exposed them to one of three different types of music for an extended period of time, then asked the students to allocate money for projects for different ethnic groups.

The group of students who were exposed to Top 40 pop music had equal allocations for all of the projects. The group who listened to mainstream rock music gave a lot more money for the white Americans than the other ethnic groups, and the group who listened to radical white power rock music allotted a lot more money for the white ethnic group’s projects.

The people who listened to the radical white rock music also did something a bit more drastic than the other groups. Not only did they allocate more money to the white ethnic group’s projects, they also gave particularly low funding for African American and Arab American group projects. This study in particular definitely helps drive in the point that music can have an effect not only on one’s personality, but with one’s social identity and background.

LaMarre and her colleagues then talked about the social identity theory, stating that “…social identity theory explained that music selection is thought to reflect one’s social group memberships” (LaMarre et al). They then go on to talk about how the theory also helps them look into how one identifies the social group they feel that they are a part of. Social identity and self-categorization are not mutually exclusive. A person generally feels happier about oneself when they feel like they’re a part of a group, and will strive to great measures to continue to fit into that certain group.  The research done by LaMarre and her colleagues is important because it shows that not only can music influence who we are inside, but it can also influence the decisions that we make and thus the world around us.

Music is something that people can define themselves by. It brings them into a community, and matters to almost everyone everywhere around the globe. It has always been a big part of cultures around the world. It can be presented in many different kinds of genres.

Stereotypes about the kind of people who listen to a certain genre of music run rampant, but they may not all be entirely untrue. There is scientific evidence that the people who listen to a certain genre may have the same qualities and characteristics as others who enjoy the same genre. While people can create a good guess on what others may like and enjoy based on their music preferences, it is always good to remember that a stereotype, no matter how much research is behind it, is still a stereotype.

Works Cited

Anderson, Craig A., Nicholas L. Carnagey, and Janie Eubanks. “Exposure to Violent Media: The Effects of Songs With Violent Lyrics on Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings.” American Psychological Association, Inc. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Print. EBSCO. 84.5(2003):960-963. 15 Sept. 2015.

Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas, and Adrian Furnham. “Personality and Music: Can Traits Explain How People Use Music in Everyday Life?” The British Psychological Society. The British Journal of Psychology, 2007. Print. EBSCO. 98(2007): 176-177. 24 Oct. 2015.

Collingwood, Jane. “Preferred Music Style is Tied to Personality.” Psych Central. PsychCentral.com, 2013. 18 Sept 2015.

Feiles, Nathan. “How Music Impacts, Helps Our Emotions.” World of Psychology. Psych Central, 26 June 2012. Web. 2 Dec 2015.

Klein, Sean (pseudonym). Personal interview. 9 Nov. 2015.

LaMarre, Heather L., Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, and Gregory J. Hoplamazian. “Does the Music Matter? Examining Differential Effects of Music Genre on Support for Ethnic Groups.” Routledge. Broadcast Education Association, 2008. Web. EBSCO. 56.1(2012) :150-157. 15 Sept. 2015.

Mohana, Malini. “Music & How It Impacts Your Brain, Emotions.” Psych Central. Psychcentral.com, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

The Music in Me. University of Cambridge, 31 Mar. 2011. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

“Research Shows Listening to Different Musical Genres Leaves Lasting Impact on Brain.” Public Radio International. Public Radio International’s The World. 12 July 2012. 15 Sept. 2015.

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