Josh McDermott and his colleagues at NYU have done some great research on the perception of sound, including the perception of music. In the recent textbook Neuroscience of Preference and Choice: Cognitive and Neural Mechanisms, McDermott has a chapter on auditory preferences, and within it, he includes a thorough review of the research on musical preferences.
As we know, music is a large part of most people’s lives, and we get a lot of pleasure from it and exposure to it. But why are some sounds pleasing and others not pleasing? Why are some chords consonant and others dissonant? And why do individuals vary in their tastes? These are complicated questions. As a demonstration of just how specific our tastes can get, McDermott alludes to the practice of sampling in hip hop and pop music. Some of the drum “breaks” from early recordings by James Brown and Kool and the Gang, as well as from more obscure artists, like the Honeydrippers and the Winstons, have been looped and used repeatedly in modern hip hop songs. The idea behind this is that the drum tracks on these early recordings have a particular sound that cannot be replicated today. So, not only do we prefer certain instruments over others, certain live music venues over others, and certain production styles over others…but there is also an intriguing appeal of older recordings that is hard to describe and imitate.
A short section in the chapter touches on how personality traits relate to music preferences. People who tend to be more “sensation seeking” prefer intense, arousing music, like rock, punk and rap (Litle & Zuckerman, 1986). Even more interestingly, extroverts prefer music with enhanced bass (McCown et al., 1997). This might be due to the prominence of bass in popular music (which is also favored by extroverts; Rawlings & Ciancarelli, 1997), but also could be explained by the association between enhanced bass and music that is conducive to dance. Extroverts, who are outgoing, are probably also more likely to enjoy social interactions connected with music, such as those inherent in dancing (dancing with others, of course!).
In addition to personality effects, there are also gender effects on musical taste: men tend to prefer enhanced bass more than women. This doesn’t surprise me, since rap and bass-heavy rock are quite popular among guys, but I still wonder why this trend exists. It probably has a lot to do with social norms; it is more socially acceptable for a man to like rap than it is for him to like lyrical, slow-tempo music. But maybe there are more subtle factors at play. Repetitive bass can be disruptive, so perhaps people who are prone to ruminate while listening to music (and women ruminate more than men) don’t appreciate that disruption of their thoughts.
All in all, the study of musical preferences is complex, but exciting. Someday, I hope we’ll understand more!