Now normally it can be said that scientific study serves to reflect analysis in the pursuit of some sort of truth — a somewhat thorough investigation, if you will, of elemental relationships in order to increase understanding about ourselves and that which surrounds us all. But every now and then, the BBC News site publishes a slightly silly story, more often than not about a rather silly study, and this time it reads: ‘Musical tastes and personality type are closely related’. Right, you say. But as you continue on, occasionally referring to the conveniently attached list of musical genres and correlating character attributes presumably so that you may conclude that you love heavy metal because you’re lazy and insecure, you start to wonder who exactly these scientists are and what it is they hope to achieve through this overly simplistic exercise in stereotype propagation.
Though you may ask why it is I’m not dissecting Google’s Chrome and instead focusing on this snippet of revelation from Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University, I can’t help but admit that I find this particular study’s findings a tad troubling. Or is it the actual question of the matter that baffles me the most? Before I dive head-first into my diatribe, first let me provide some ‘POV FYI’: One summer ago, I had written about a similar topic of dicussion, namely the realm of music and how personal it can be. Through one’s understanding of taste, it seemed at the time rather obvious that one could surmise a number of factors as credited towards what it is a person decides to buy when browsing through the online MP3 supplier of choice. In tandem, the Last.fm social music platform expanded upon this point, acting as a personal laboratory in which the vast musical expanse in its multitudinous spectrum of overlapping genres and cross-over musicians is impressively encapsulated by a network of music listeners who are interconnected via taste and habit.
In fact, it was Last.fm that initially sparked my interest in what governs musical taste and what taste says about who we are as individuals. And since then, I have been more aware of my own personal leanings, how it is I come across different types of music, my emotional state whilst listening to certain LPs, people I meet who like particular sounds, and so on. That said, it would appear that I would be in concurrence with the aforementioned study’s premise, and indeed I am: music taste and personality are very much linked to one another. Be that as it may, what I greatly disagree with is the scope in which it was carried out, and the manner in which it has since been sold to the public conceptually as some sort of ground-breaking finding that appears to be on par with the outcome of a ‘Find Your Sexy Love Match’ quiz in Cosmo. In my struggle to figure out whether this is bad science or just bad journalism, the report’s failure to highlight the existence of general trends leading to an assessment so heavily laden with stereotypes makes me wonder if these psychologists are equipped well enough to understand the psychology of music, or do they just get a kick out of being funded for stating the obvious?
Clearly, this story has already received significant public reception as evidenced by its long-standing debut on the BBC’s ‘most e-mailed’ ranking. Having surveyed more than 36,000 people worldwide in rating 104 musical styles and assessing their respective personalities, I too am impressed; after all, it is the ‘largest such study ever undertaken’. But to Professor Adrian North, I ask you this: How is it that you can describe the research as ‘significant’ and ‘surprising’? Or say that ‘if you know a person’s music preference, you can tell what kind of person they are [and] who to sell to’ according to your findings? In North’s view, ‘there are obvious implications for the music industry who are are worried about declining CD sales’ and ‘the research could have many uses in marketing’. But that’s as reasonable as it gets when he goes and says something silly like ‘One of the most surprising things is the similarities between fans of classical music and heavy metal; they’re both creative and at ease but not outgoing’ — which is followed by his critique against the ‘suicidally depressed’ stereotype of metal listeners, only to then stereotype metal listeners as ‘delicate things’.
It all continues downhill as this unidimensional study is further elaborated upon: polar measures of self-esteem, creativity, persistence in work and social manner blatantly fail to take into consideration that none of us have high self-esteem at constant, nor are we always up to the task. As for creativity, in reality how can that be quantified so that it may relate to particular types of music? This is not to mention, of course, the fact that the marketing North is so eager to revolutionize for the music industry is already at play when it comes to people’s tastes. What’s then left is a gaping hole in which the more important, determining elements are inherently involved, e.g. age, gender, location, access to media, exposure to advertising, social circles, former partners, parents’ music collections, concerts attended, CDs borrowed, hobbies, IQ, personal propensity for musicianship, and the list is endless. After all, it is not a coincidence that these things impact our personalities too.
So I’m left wondering what type of music Professor North listens to that would correlate with sounding so daft, though I suspect he doesn’t listen to any music at all. But I refrain, as it would be very rude of me to judge. What music, then, do I myself like and what does that make me? Well, within the framework provided by the chart, I can tolerate all genres listed save for chart pop, country and western. Consequently, this chart indicates that I have both high and low self-esteem, I work hard yet I don’t, I’m creative and gentle but not all the time, and the same goes for being outgoing, introverted and at ease. That leaves a huge gap for more sorts of schizophrenic traits that are bound to crop up when considering the other hundred genres that are not included in this narrow, monolithic mainstream set of blues, jazz, classical, rap, opera, reggae, dance, rock, soul, indie, and the recently added Bollywood (NB: not present in the article’s originally released version).
Luckily, though, I’m not alone in the confusion, as fellow readers have made comments in BBC’s related Have Your Say section ranging from ‘this is utter rubbish’ to ‘what on earth would people think if they looked at my iPod?’. Whatever happened to common sense? Who knows… But I do hope that the team over at Heriot-Watt realize in time that to truly conduct a ‘significant’ and ‘surprising’ study, they must first acknowledge that personality is linked to an infinite set of environmental factors, and it is in this same environment that the phenomenon of musical exposure takes shape. It shouldn’t take a person with an accomplished background in psychology and a study of tens of thousands to conclude that chances are, what lays the foundation for your own unique persona will also have tremendous impact on what you enjoy listening to late at night in the comfort of your own home.
But fortunately for us mere mortals, the study is ongoing and participants are needed for the sake of science in order to fill out the questionnaires available online (link below). And like the countless, fruitless Opinonpanel Research ‘Student Panel‘ surveys I’ve unwittingly subscribed to in the past, I’m tempted to take part sheerly out of the desire to try its limitations and confirm that both musical taste and personality cannot be simply defined for the sake of marketing and pushing records to naive consumers victimized by science-backed advertising and poorly reported journalism.
– Sarah Badr
© 2008. S.H.Badr, All Rights Reserved.