What is music for?



Psychologists puzzle over art in general. For some genres, they can give glib (and almost certainly wrong) defences. Maybe we like pretty landscapes because inwardly we’re looking for safe and fertile lands for our tribe. (But why, then, do we like hostile, barren and dangerous mountains above dull, safe and bountiful floodplains?)


Could we read novels because they teach us how people think and enables us to navigate the social world more effectively? (But how to explain the popularity of thrillers, one-off stories of terrible murders we’ll never encounter, over the careful, tedious descriptions of everyday life that might benefit us?)


On music, sensible psychologists are mute. What possible purpose could attraction to certain configurations of vibrations in the air possibly serve? In the evenings, when I fire up Mahler’s Fifth and lie prostrate and content, wouldn’t my genes be better served if I did something useful instead?


But if the purpose of music is one of psychology’s great mysteries, we can learn much about individuals by their preferences.


Researchers in Cambridge, Stanford, California and Pennsylvania asked over twenty-thousand people about their musical preferences, gave them samples of tunes to rate and administered standard personality tests. They also interrogated the Facebook profiles of another twenty thousand. Comparing people's preferences with their personality scores, they found the following:

  • Extroverts prefer non-pretentious music (i.e. not Mahler)

  • Opera and jazz lovers are more open to experience, intellectually curious and sensitive

  • Compassionate, co-operative sorts liked all sorts of music more

You might think the results are a statement of the obvious. But if our musical tastes are a signal of who we are, an advert of our personality, then that’s what you’d expect.


This interpretation also tallies with the other thing we know about music: it's social. Our ancestors could admire cave paintings in privacy, or grunt primitive poetry to themselves. But before the invention of headphones, music's nearly always been something we make together and listen to together.


Even today, people will pay to attend crowded concerts and festivals when they could have listened to the same tunes for free on their computers. And they talk about their tastes: wear the T-shirt, share their playlists and plaster images of their favourite stars on their schoolbooks.


Perhaps the purpose of music isn’t such a mystery after all.


If you're open to experience, and don't mind learning you don't think how you think you think, read Chris Paley's Unthink (published by Coronet, Hodder & Stoughton).


Reference: Nave et al. (2018)