Mood and emotion
Of all the topics investigated in the social psychology of music, none have received more attention than music and emotion (see Juslin & Sloboda, 2010). Numerous studies have explored the expression, perception, and induction of emotion in music. The evidence is clear that people are able to perceive emotions in music and that individuals generally perceive similar emotions in the same pieces of music (Juslin & Laukka, 2003). Furthermore, there is evidence that the emotions perceived in music are often the same emotion that the composer or performer intended to communicate (Juslin, 2000; Thompson & Robitaille, 1992). Juslin (2000), for example, instructed professional guitarists to perform three pieces of music four times, each time to communicate either happiness, sadness, anger, or fear. The results showed that the musicians manipulated particular features of the music (e.g., loudness, tempo, timbre, etc.) to communicate different emotions, and that the configuration of musical features significantly influenced which emotions listeners perceived in the music. Such research is important because it confirms the notion that music expresses emotion and sheds light on how emotion is communicated through music, but it does not address whether music actually evokes feelings in listeners.
Empirical research on music-induced emotions provides convincing evidence that music does indeed elicit certain emotions and moods in listeners (Juslin & Laukka, 2004; Scherer and Zentner, 2001). Results from studies that assessed emotion using self-reports (Barrett, Grimm, Robins, Wildschut, Sedikides, & Janata, 2010; Zentner, Grandjean, & Scherer, 2008), physiological indicators (Krumhansl, 1997; Salimpoor, Benovoy, Longo, Cooperstock, & Zatorre, 2009), brain activity (Blood & Zatorre, 2001; Menon & Levitin, 2005), and non-verbal behavior (Sloboda, 1992) all converge to indicate that music can influence how people feel. Many of these studies have shown that music can effectively elicit a variety of positive emotions (e.g., pleasure, happiness, relaxation, etc.) as well as negative emotions (e.g., sadness, fear, irritation, etc.). However, one of the limitations of this research is that it decontextualizes the music listening experience. In everyday life, people choose to listen to music for one reason or another depending on the situation and their surroundings. How does music affect emotion in everyday life?
Studies using experience-sampling methods help contextualize findings from laboratory investigations by providing base-rate information about the frequency and types of emotions people experience in their daily lives. On the whole, people appear to experience music-induced emotions quite frequently and most of the emotions are positive (Greasley & Lamont, 2011; Heye & Lamont, 2010; Juslin et al., 2008; North, Hargreaves, & Hargreaves, 2004; Sloboda, O’Neill, & Ivaldi, 2001). For example, Juslin et al. (2008) monitored people’s music listening habits and emotional experience several times a day for 2 weeks. Their results indicated that participants experienced music-induced emotions in 64% of the musical episodes sampled and that the emotions most commonly evoked by music were calm-contentment, happiness, and interest. These findings suggest that even though music can evoke a variety of emotions, people typically use music to achieve or maintain a positive affective state.
With so much evidence showing that music affects emotion in controlled and real-world settings, researchers have begun to focus on the mechanisms underlying music-induced emotions. How does music evoke emotional reactions in listeners? Investigations in this area have identified several mechanisms at work, including autobiographical memory (Barrett et al., 2010), emotional contagion (Hunter, Schellenberg, & Griffith, 2011), and expectancy (Huron, 2006). In an attempt to provide clarity to the literature, Juslin and Västfjäll (2008) developed a conceptual framework that identifies seven psychological mechanisms responsible for evoking emotion from music: cognitive appraisal, brain stem reflexes, evaluative conditioning, emotional contagion, visual imagery, episodic memory, and musical expectancy. Although some critics have taken issue with the relative importance given to some of the mechanisms proposed (e.g., musical expectancy; Krumhansl & Agres, 2008; Vuust & Frith, 2008) or with the absence of other factors (e.g., exposure, Schellenberg, 2008), the framework provides a sturdy foundation for developing and testing hypotheses about how and why music affects the way people feel.
Personality and individual differences
Cattell and Anderson (1953) were among the first investigators to systematically examine individual differences in music preferences. Their research was based on the notion that music preferences reflect unconscious motives and was intended to provide a method for measuring such unconscious aspects of personality. However, current work on individual differences in music preferences aims to identify their links with explicit traits, values, and abilities. Like the uses and gratifications approach, the assumption underlying much of this work is that individuals seek musical environments that reinforce and reflect aspects of their personalities, attitudes, and emotions (Colley, 2008; Delsing, ter Bogt, Engels, & Meeus, 2008; George et al., 2007; Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003; Rentfrow & McDonald, 2010; Schäfer & Sedlmeier, 2009). Much of the research in this area has examined the structure of music preferences with the aim of developing a foundation on which to develop and test hypotheses about the role of music in everyday life.
Nearly a dozen independent investigations have examined the structure of music preferences. Most of these investigations assessed individual differences in preferences using music-genre labels (e.g., classical, rock, rap, etc.) as proxies for listening to actual musical pieces. Although the methods and genres assessed are not entirely the same, results across these studies have shown a surprising degree of convergence and suggest four or five music-preference dimensions (Colley, 2008; Delsing et al., 2008; Dunn, de Ruyter, and Bouwhuis, forthcoming; George et al., 2007; Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003; Rentfrow & McDonald, 2010; Schäfer & Sedlmeier, 2009).
In an attempt to add clarity to the area and overcome the methodological shortcomings of previous work, Rentfrow, Goldberg, and Levitin (2011) recently examined individual differences in music preferences by playing audio recordings of real music to experimental participants. Results from three samples converged with findings in previous work to reveal five robust music-preference dimensions: Mellow, Unpretentious, Sophisticated, Intense, and Contemporary (MUSIC). The Mellow dimension comprises soft rock, R & B, and adult contemporary and is characterized as romantic, relaxing, slow, and quiet; Unpretentious comprises country and folk and characterized as uncomplicated, relaxing, unaggressive, and acoustic; Sophisticated comprises classical, opera, jazz, and world and is characterized as inspiring, intelligent, complex, and dynamic; Intense comprises rock, punk, and heavy metal and is characterized as distorted, loud, aggressive, and not romantic, nor inspiring; and Contemporary comprises rap, electronica, and pop and is characterized as percussive, electric, energetic, and not sad.
Research on the structure of music preferences provides a firm foundation for exploring the correlates of music preferences. Analyses of the psychological correlates of music preferences have revealed distinct associations with personality, political ideology, values, sexual attitudes and cognitive abilities (e.g., Delsing et al., 2008; Dunn, de Ruyter, & Bouwhuis, forthcoming; Rentfrow, Goldberg, & Zilca, 2011; Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003, 2006; ter Bogt, Engels, Bogers, & Kloosterman, 2010; Zweigenhaft, 2008). For example, individuals with preferences for sophisticated musical styles, like classical, opera, and jazz, are high in Openness, creativity, imagination, possess liberal values, value artistic expression, and score high on measures of verbal ability. People with preferences for intense styles of music, like heavy metal and punk, are high in Openness, sensation seeking, impulsivity, and athletic ability. And people with preferences for contemporary music, like pop, rap, and dance, are high in Extraversion, value social recognition, endorse more gender stereotypes, have more permissive attitudes about sex, and consider themselves physically attractive.
Music preferences research also provides a useful approach for exploring connections between music and problem behavior. Several studies have examined individual differences in music preferences and their associations with various risky behaviors, including drug use, sex, and crime (e.g., Arnett, 1991; Mulder, ter Bogt, Raaijmakers, & Vollebergh, 2007; Singer, Levine, & Jou, 1993). In a comprehensive study involving over 4000 adolescents, Mulder et al. (2007) found that music preferences were uniquely associated with various internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors. For example, internalizing behavior, such as self-harm, was comparatively high among fans of heavy metal and rock music, whereas depression was higher among fans of classical and other “elite” musical styles. Externalizing behavior problems, including aggression and substance abuse, was comparatively high among fans of rock, heavy metal, and rap music. Together, these findings leave room for the hypothesis that the psychological variables influencing music preferences are also responsible for problem behavior; in other words, music preferences and problem behavior may both be manifestations of the same underlying dispositions.
Most of the research on individual differences in musical preferences has focused on adolescents and young adults. As a result, we know rather little about how musical preferences develop across the lifespan. Are preferences stable throughout life, or do the change? Of the handful of studies conducted, there appears to be consensus for the crystallization hypothesis, which states that the music individuals enjoy in adolescence and early adulthood crystallizes and becomes the music they prefer throughout adulthood (Holbrook & Schindler, 1989). Specifically, the period during adolescence is filled with a variety of hormonal, emotional, and social changes that create a critical period of maximum sensitivity. Because music is used during this critical period for self-discovery, social bonding, and emotion regulation, the music that people listen to at this stage of life becomes psychologically and physiologically significant. As individuals reach maturity, this critical period ends and the music that people listened to in adolescence is remembered across the lifespan and becomes a strong source of nostalgia (Christenson & Roberts, 1998; Holbrook & Schindler, 1989; Janssen, Chessa, & Murre, 2007).
Taken together, research on the structure and psychological correlates of music preferences appears robust, as very similar patterns of findings have emerged in different samples. However, most of the research is based on young adults in North America or Western Europe, so it is not clear whether the structure or correlates generalize to other age groups of cultures. Thus, we need more research with samples that are diverse in terms of age and culture to determine how such variables impact preferences and their links with psychological factors.
Self and identity
Results from survey studies consistently show that people, particularly young adults, place considerable importance on their music preferences. Much of this research indicates that music serves as a symbolic representation of self and that individuals derive a sense of identity from the music they listen to. How does music affect one’s sense of self?
Music provides a medium for self-exploration, where individuals are able to reflect on who they are, where they came from, and who they aspire to become. According to DeNora (2000), individuals engage in a reflexive process of remembering and constructing their identities while listening to music, which can serve as a form of self-affirmation and discovery. The themes and images evoked by listening to preferred styles of music resonate with individuals because they either recognize these qualities in themselves or wish to embody them. Tarrant and colleagues (Tarrant, North, & Hargreaves, 2002) have proposed that the social connotations associated with a style of music may be one of the factors that people find most appealing. To the extent that individuals are attracted to a style of music, they may align their personal self-image with the perceived characteristics associated with that music. Thus, music would seem to function as a vehicle for identity development and exploration that goes beyond the tangible image (e.g., clothing) to include personal characteristics and values.
Several studies have also examined the impact of music preferences on individuals’ sense of self-worth. Drawing from social identity theory, which posits that the social groups to which individuals belong are represented psychologically as part of the self-concept (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), a number of researchers have begun to examine how affiliation with music-based social groups (e.g., punks, rockabilly, emo, etc.) relates to self-esteem. Results from these investigations have consistently shown that individuals assimilate the characteristics of their preferred music-based social group – they adopt similar values and lifestyles. Moreover, identification with the group increases in-group favoritism and out-group derogation, which, in turn, enhances self-esteem (e.g., North & Hargreaves, 1999; Tarrant et al., 2002; Tekman & Hortaçsu, 2002).
Optimal distinctiveness theory (Brewer, 1991, 2003) also explains how music contributes to self-identity. Brewer (1991) proposed that individuals have countervailing needs for similarity and uniqueness. Identification with a broad social category is insufficiently self-defining but conceiving oneself as entirely unique is isolating, so people strive for a certain amount of validation with some uniqueness for an optimal level of distinctiveness. Recent research indicates that people use music to achieve optimal distinctiveness (Berger & Heath, 2008) and that music is a central aspect of identity for individuals who obtain distinctiveness through music. Specifically, Abrams (2009) showed that individuals with preferences for styles of music with intermediate levels of popularity (and therefore optimally distinct) invested more resources and commitment to their musical identities compared to people who preferred musical styles with limited or broad popularity. Such research adds to our understanding of why music is so important to some people – it is a representation of who they are: their values, dispositions, and beliefs.
Given the role music plays in self-identity, it may be no surprise that it is one of the most common modes of self-expression among young people. Indeed, Frith (1981) argued that people use their favorite music as an identity badge to broadcast information about themselves to others. That observation certainly converges with people’s behavior on Internet-based social networking websites like Facebook, where people can share whatever information about themselves they choose, as music preferences are among the most common forms of information displayed on people’s profiles. In fact, there are numerous web-based music applications on Facebook and other social networking sites, such as LastFM and Spotify, which log and display users’ music listening habits on their web pages so that others can see which bands and songs users enjoy or listen to most often. By using music in this way, individuals are making public statements about who they are, who they want to be, and how they want others to perceive them.
Such observations are actually supported by empirical evidence. For example, in a study of how people get to know each other online, Rentfrow and Gosling (2006) analyzed the conversations of unacquainted participants who corresponded online for six weeks. The results revealed that of all the topics discussed, music was by far the most common. Faced with the task of becoming acquainted, it would seem that people believe their music preferences reveal information about who they are and can help them learn more about others. Indeed, studies on people’s motives for listening to music consistently show that adolescents and young adults say their music preferences represent who they are – their opinions, values, and lifestyles (North & Hargreaves, 1999; Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003). There is even evidence that young people believe music is a better communicator of their identity than the clothing they wear, the movies they watch, the books they read, or the hobbies they pursue (Lonsdale & North, 2011; Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003).
Although people may use music to communicate information about themselves, does music actually influence how they are perceived? There is converging evidence that information about individuals’ music preferences influences how they are perceived. For example, Rentfrow and colleagues examined the content and validity of stereotypes about fans of different music genres (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2007; Rentfrow et al., 2009). Results from that work suggest that people have very similar stereotypes about the psychological and social characteristics of most music fans – particularly fans of classical, rap, and heavy metal music – and that the content of those stereotypes vary substantially. For example, fans of classical music are believed to be White, wealthy, hardworking, introverted, physically unattractive, intelligent and artistic, whereas rap music fans are believed to be extraverted, relaxed, athletic, and to drink beer and smoke marijuana. When the content of these stereotypes were compared with the psychological characteristics of actual music fans, the results revealed that many of the stereotypes have some validity.
There is also evidence that people can form accurate impressions of individuals on the basis of their music preferences. Burroughs, Drews, and Hallman (1991) found that observers were able to form accurate impressions of targets based on their personal possessions (e.g., favorite clothing, favorite records). Rentfrow and Gosling (2006) focused exclusively on music preferences and observed that judges were able to form accurate impressions of targets personalities and values after only listening to targets’ top-10 favorite songs. Analyses of the processes underlying observers’ personality judgments suggested that they relied on specific aspects of the music (e.g., the amount of singing, emotional valence), as well as music-genre stereotypes to form their impressions.
Taken together, these investigations clearly indicate that people use music in the service of self-expression and that music can actually provide valid information about individuals’ personalities, values, and beliefs. Such findings suggest that people use music to connect with and to be understood by others. However, research on music and self-expression has focused almost entirely on young people and there is some evidence that working aged and older adults do not use music as an identity badge (Lonsdale & North, 2011). There are a variety of reasons why adults may be less likely to use music for self-expression, from having a weaker need to self-express, to having more effective means for doing so. Either way, research with more age-diversified samples will shed greater light on music and self-expression.
Attraction and social bonding
There is a widespread belief that music preferences are relevant for social bonding and attraction. Consider, for instance, that the majority of online-dating websites ask users to report their music preferences (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2006). It is as though people believe they will be more satisfied in a relationship with someone who shares their taste in music than with someone who has different preferences. Given that there are links between music preferences and personality, that music contributes to social identity, and that music can serve as a valid indicator of someone’s character, this belief is understandable and may be justified. Does music have any relevance in social relationships? Is similarity in music preferences associated attraction or relationship satisfaction?
There is evidence that music does indeed affect attraction. For example, in a study concerned with the effects of music preferences on heterosexual attraction, Zillmann and Bhatia (1989) showed participants videos of prospective dating partners and manipulated the musical preferences of the targets. The results showed that music had a significant effect on how attractive participants rated the targets. Specifically, male and female targets with preferences for country music were perceived as less attractive compared to targets with different musical preferences. Male participants perceived female targets who preferred classical music as physically attractive and sophisticated, whereas females with preferences for heavy metal music were perceived as rebellious and less attractive. Ziv, Sagi, and Basserman (2008) showed that targets with preferences for high-status music (i.e., classical, jazz) were rated as more physically attractive than were targets with preferences for low-status music. Such results suggest that music influences attraction, but does music ultimately matter in relationships? Do partners’ preferences have any bearing on the quality or success of the relationship?
People are attracted to individuals who share their music preferences. Selfhout et al. (2009) tested that hypothesis in a longitudinal study of friendship formation among adolescents. Their analyses indicated that musical preferences of participants who mutually nominated each other as best friends were highly similar and much more so than were preferences among random strangers. Furthermore, participants with similar music preferences but who were not mutual friends during the first year of school were more likely to become mutual friends by the second year than were participants with diverging preferences. These effects remained even after controlling for participants’ demographic and background characteristics.
One of the assumptions underlying research on music and social bonding is that shared preferences reflect similarities in values and dispositions – that people who enjoy the same music see and experience the world in similar ways and therefore agree about more things than do people with different preferences. Such reasoning suggests that it is not music per se that is important in social bonding, but that music acts as an indicator of one’s values and traits, which mediate the link between shared preferences and attraction. Boer et al. (2011) recently examined this issue in a series of controlled laboratory studies and also in a field study involving college roommates. The results converged across the studies to show that shared music preferences predict social attraction and that the link between preferences and attraction was mediated by similarity in value orientations but not personality. Furthermore, these connections remained even after taking into account demographic characteristics and perceived similarity.