Once past saying ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ to someone you’ve just met, what is next? How do we make friends and get to know other people? Psychologists have talked about the importance of body language, physical appearance and clothing but they’ve not been so keen on what we actually talk about. A recent study put participants in same-sex and opposite-sex pairings and told them to get to know each other over 6 weeks (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2006). Analysing the results, they found the most popular topic of conversation was music. What is it about music that’s so useful when we first meet someone and what kind of information can we extract from the music another person likes?
The number of people who talked about music was surprisingly high. In the first week on average 58% of the pairs discussed music compared to 37% of all the other categories of conversation combined. Other categories included books, movies, TV, football and clothes.
Why then do we use music as a first port of call in getting to know another person? We probably think that music is indirectly telling us something about the other person’s personality. For this reason, the second question this study tried to answer was: how good is music as a measure of personality?
Top 10 personalities
To measure this, participants were asked to judge people’s personality solely on their top 10 list of songs.
This was compared to participants results on a standard type of personality test measuring the big five personality traits: openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability. Overall the results showed that music preferences were reasonably accurate in conveying aspects of personality. Of the five traits, it was a person’s openness to experience that was best communicated by their top 10 list of songs, followed by extraversion and emotional stability. On the other hand, music preferences didn’t say much about whether a person was conscientious or not.
What some music preferences mean for personality:
- Likes vocals: extraverted
- Likes country: emotionally stable. On the face of it, this is bizarre really because country music is all about heartache. Either the emotionally stable are attracted to country music or it has a calming effect on the unstable!
- Likes jazz: intellectual
This raises the question of why people listen to particular types of music. One theory is that people simply find some music more pleasant for aesthetic or cognitive reasons. Another is that people use music to regulate their mood: I want to get hyper for a night out so I put on some dance music. Another is that music is related to identity; people listen to music that expresses they way they see themselves. It seems likely that a combination of all these theories is probably true.
One really important caveat for this study was that the average age of the participants was around 18 so this finding might not hold in different age-groups. My experience is young people talk about music much more than older people. This raises the question of what, for example, might be the most common topic of conversations for other age-groups getting acquainted. Any suggestions?
Despite this limitation it seems that talking about music might be a very powerful way to make a connection with another person.
» This post is part of a series on the psychology of relationships.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Rentfrow, P.J., & Gosling, S.D. (2006). Message in a Ballad. The Role of Music Preferences in Interpersonal Perception. Psychological Science, 17(3), 236-242.