We don’t know exactly when people first started making music, but we do know we’ve been going at it for a very long time. Some archaeologists think the sounds that would eventually and regrettably become “Nookie” emerged in a sort of order: singing first, followed by clapping, and then foot stomping. Around 60,000 years ago, someone even realized they were more of a bone-flute kinda guy (literally flutes made from animal bones). Because humans were self-aware before making music, and we’re famously judgy, I’m sure people had opinions about this. Oh, he likes the bone flute? What an asshole. Meanwhile, the sensitive types may have bonded with other arty cave people over their love of hitting two rocks together.

We are not the only animal to get emotional over music— studies have shown that music elicits different emotional responses in pigs, depending on the tune. But of all God’s creatures, we are the only ones to ask: What does my favorite genre of music say about me?

We use our taste in music to know ourselves, and we try to use taste to get to know other people, too. Sometimes these preferences mysteriously morph into an aesthetic. For example, once I was just a girl listening to sad music. Now “sad girl music” is a thing—so much of a thing that artists like SZA have tried to distance themselves from the label, while Spotify makes a “sad girl starter pack” playlist. Emotional music created by women—from Phoebe Bridgers to Billie Eilish to Mitski—has been packaged into a trending, overarching social phenomenon, with ensuing think pieces investigating why now?

Are we just one giant, incredibly sad nation? Attempts to group together fans of these artists (also the “sad girls,” I guess) as one monolith—or maybe a marketing demographic—are complicated by a scientific reality. Sad music is more a vibe than anything else. And it’s that aesthetic experience that many are drawn to, more than that we all share a profound, collective bummer attitude and a penchant for wearing all black.

That being said, there have still been many attempts by scientists to discover what compels us to like the music we like. These studies often examine music preference through the lens of the “Big Five” common traits used in psychology to measure personality: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. What they’ve found is both simple and complex, like making ramen when you’re stoned. The process has yielded insights...but also inconsistencies. So, ultimately, it’s all very human.

Stereotypes aren’t fun unless we’re talking about astrological signs, and some research, despite its legitimacy, feels similar in tone. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology last year, researchers affiliated with the University of Cambridge reported that they found consistent links between certain personality types and music preferences, regardless of the country the participant lived in.

For example, the study found a link between being an extroverted person and enjoying contemporary music that’s upbeat, rhythmic, and sometimes electronic. Meanwhile, neurotic people were more drawn to intense music with fast and edgy features. Those same neurotic people did not enjoy mellow music—which was contrary to what the scientists thought they would discover, assuming, as they wrote, that “we might observe that the sad features of mellow music would appeal to someone who scores high on neuroticism and has feelings of loneliness and depression.” The group that actually enjoyed mellow (what some might call sad) music consistently exhibited a personality that was categorized as “agreeable.” (I am very agreeable.)

Pheobe Bridgers
“I’m so happy I could write a soul-crushing ballad.” Photo via Getty

Ultimately, the study concluded, it doesn’t matter where you live—if you’re neurotic, you’ll like Nirvana, and if you’re an extrovert, you’ll like Ed Sheeran (these were the acts the study authors used as examples, sorry to any offended extroverts!).

Bill Thompson, a psychology professor at Bond University in Australia, told me he decided to study who likes listening to sad music because he finds sad music “beautiful and mysterious, in spite of also being sad,” which is probably the best tagline I can think of for Lana del Rey. He also likes the paradox inherent in enjoying sad music. People generally want to experience positive emotions and avoid negative ones. Yet when it comes to the arts, many seek out difficult, complicated emotions.

In a paper published in the journal Music Perception in 2012, Thompson and his colleagues revealed that during a study, participants reported feeling sad after listening to sad music, but they also experienced other emotions, like nostalgia, peacefulness, and wonder. After assessing the study participants’ personalities, the researchers also found a connection between the enjoyment of sad music and having the personality traits of openness to experience and empathy—a trait that helps us understand and respond with care to the feelings of others.

These results make sense to Thompson.

Openness to experience, he says, means “you want to explore as much of the world as you can; you don’t shy away from an experience merely because it might evoke a difficult emotion.”

Thompson is also careful to observe that personality is only one predictor of our musical tastes. Environmental factors influence our preferences too—what our parents and friends listen to shapes our interests, and studies have shown that music education in childhood results in an increased appreciation for complex styles.

Some of his work also hints at the dangers of false assumptions. For example, while there’s traditionally been hand-wringing in some knitting circles over death metal and the people who like it, he’s found that fans overwhelmingly experience positive emotions when listening, including a sense of peace. “The music does not ‘fuel’ anger, as is often implied by police, concerned parent groups, and religious organizations,” Thompson says. “Instead it brings joy and wonder to fans.”

It’s enthusiasm for the genre that promotes this positive emotional response to the music. Meanwhile, studies on heavy metal have yet to produce robust connections to personality traits. In a paper published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media, Thompson and his colleagues found that fans of death metal had “slightly lower levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness than non-fans.” But they caution in the study that this finding suggests “subtle trends” rather than a clear distinction between fans and non-fans.

At the same time, they found no difference between the two groups when it came to being empathetic.

Diana Deutsch, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies the psychology of music, told me that although a large number of studies have tried to correlate preferences for various musical styles with basic personality traits, these studies “have produced a large number of inconsistent and negative findings.” Basically: Sometimes they find a credible link between personalities and music preference, and sometimes they don’t.

“This is unsurprising, as there are no agreed-upon criteria for categorizing musical styles, nor for categorizing personality traits,” Deutsch says. In other words, the research has limitations. It’s also not always clear to what extent findings represent what people actually listen to and how they behave. For example, one team of researchers from the University of Split in Croatia commented that college students—who are often the ones being studied—may report stronger preferences for genres that are popular among their friends because they want to seem cool. And when you’re describing your own personality, that becomes especially knotty.

“It is reasonable to assume that some basic personality traits are involved in music listening,” explains Deutsch. “It is just very difficult to document them with confidence.”

Fans of metal overwhelmingly experience positive emotions when listening, including a sense of peace

It’s interesting to chew on your own preferences and what they mean about you, considering all of this. Something my friend Bianca and I do is listen to a song, look at each other, and say, “Hmm, this could have been sadder.” We are joking, but we also are not. I love sad songs. But I stopped listening to sad music when I’m sad after I overindulged in it during a breakup and it ruined some bands for me.

Other sad sacks feel the same way. In a study published in the journal Media Psychology in 2014, researchers from SUNY Albany said they found that people in low moods weren’t actually inclined to listen to sad songs—but they were “strongly adverse” to happy songs. They were concerned that “choosing such songs would feel inappropriate” at that particular moment.

While “sad girl music” was briefly a kind of fun, tongue-incheek nomenclature, it’s increasingly used as a reductionist catchall and a way to pigeonhole an artist and her fans. When asked by Russh magazine if she ever gets sick of the “sad girl music” label, Phoebe Bridgers replied, “It’s definitely exhausting.” Bridgers, whose music is sad enough to be the centerpiece of an intense grief plotline on the show Shrinking, is just portraying a complex everyday emotion in her songs—something all artists do, but men aren’t teased about (unless they are Drake).

Heavy metal fans
Our pull quote come to life. Photo via Getty

So maybe something you like reveals something about you, or perhaps it’s just aesthetic appreciation (though some scientists would say it’s personality that shapes aesthetic appreciation). Muddling this further is the possibility that what is a more salient explainer of our preferences isn’t our personalities but something else still intimately related: our identity.

“Music is tethered to our sense of identity and helps us define ourselves in the world,” Thompson says. “Much of our appreciation of music is about this experience of identity.”

Identity absorbs psychological characteristics, along with our affiliations and social roles. Life experiences also shape your identity. In a study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescents in 2003, scientists from the University of Calgary found that teenagers liked music that reflected their personalities and the issues that they were dealing with. We’re not just potatoes. We’re loaded baked potatoes with fixings that change our flavor. And we just want to listen to sad music sometimes, okay?!

Why is it important to know this? Well, some researchers say that streaming platforms can use personality research to “further personalize user interfaces,” which closes us off to hearing new or different things we might not lazily gravitate toward on our own.

Meanwhile, I like to think it’s worthwhile to ponder who we are beyond just a bunch of meat sticks stuck on a stressful bowling ball. Music choice is one way to gain some perspective. If your preferences have changed (maybe you are now more badass than sadass), perhaps parts of your personality have changed too. After all, humans tend to evolve. And maybe it’s time to bring back the bone flute.

Thanks for reading CREEM. This article originally appeared in our Summer 2023 issue. If you prefer to read in print, grab a copy here and subscribe to never miss another one.




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