BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

What Your Music Preference Says About You

Author: Anna Marie Froude

Music is universal. It exists across every culture, and it has for thousands of years. But have you ever wondered what your music style preference says about you? If you are anything like me, then your answer to this question would be, yes! As someone who would consider their music preference to be quite eclectic, I have always enjoyed listening to a wide array of music, whether that be pop punk, rock, hip-hop, or even bluegrass, among others. The music genre I listen to is largely dependent on my mood, or the people I am surrounded by. 

So, let's explore what our musical preferences might mean on a more cognitive level. Additionally, let’s explore some ways that we, as university students, could improve our mental health with the power of music!

Research has shown that musical preferences are significantly correlated with our mental health, displaying the ability to release inner stress or pain and even aiding our ability to express happiness (Carleson et al., 2015; Huang et al., 2020). Music can help to evoke our inner feelings and guide our emotions, both of which are crucial factors in influencing cognition and decision-making (Koelsch, 2015). I know that I am certainly guilty of indulging in a sappy break-up after some less-than-ideal relationships in my past! But what does all of this tell us?

A study by Wang et al. (2021) found that for college students that showed a greater preference for pop music, western classical music, or Chinese traditional music, there was a significant and positive correlation with good mental health. In contrast, significant and inverse correlations with mental health were found for college students that preferred listening to “heavy music” (characterized as music that produces “loud and fast melodies to express intense emotions such as madness and roughness”), including metal music, rock music, and rap music (Wang et al., 2021). Though I have to admit, these findings will certainly not stop me from listing to Fall Out Boy’s newest album. Also, I think it is important to note that while this study may have found a correlation between “heavy music” and poorer mental health, correlation does not mean causation. So, if listening to metal or rock music makes you happy and provides you with a sense of calm or stress relief, keep on listening (because I know I will!).

As university students, our lives can often be filled with stress and anxiety. To help alleviate some of these undesirable emotions, it may be beneficial for us to not only listen to music as a means of de-stressing, but also to play music ourselves. Playing instruments has not only been shown to improve cognitive function and facets of mental health, but has been shown to improve emotional release and decrease anxiety (Shipman, 2016). So, next time you reach for your phone to play some music, perhaps consider reaching for an instrument or attending a musical instrument lesson. You may just find that learning a new instrument, or honing the skills of an instrument you currently play, is accompanied by a great sense of emotional relief!
Carlson, E., Saarikallio, S., Toiviainen, P., Bogert, B., Kliuchko, M., & Brattico, E. (2015). Maladaptive and adaptive emotion regulation through music: A behavioral     and neuroimaging study of males and females. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 466.
Koelsch S. (2015). Music-evoked emotions: principles, brain correlates, and implications for therapy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1337, 193–    201.
Shipman D. (2016). A prescription for music lessons. Federal Practitioner, 33(2), 9–12.
Wang, K., Gao, S., & Huang, J. (2022). Learning about your mental health from your playlist? Investigating the correlation between music preference and mental     health of college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 824789.