Do Your Favourite Song Lyrics Reveal Your Relationship Style?

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A new study by University of Toronto researchers suggests that your favourite music says a lot about who you are, and how you relate to people.

Several previous studies have linked musical preferences with various personality traits. UofT researchers in the psychology department looked for links between song preferences and what are known as attachment styles. They analyzed the data from 570 test participants over 7,000 songs in reaching their findings.

The findings were published in the Journal for the International Association for Relationship Research, an academic journal.

Attachment styles

Psychologist John Bowlby is credited with first developing the concept of attachment styles. In essence, it connects our early childhood experiences with the way we relate to other people throughout our lives.

The four generally recognized attachment styles are:

  • Secure;
  • Anxious;
  • Avoidant-dismissive;
  • Avoidant-fearful.

“In the 80s or so, people started realizing that the patterns infants had with their parents were, at the very least, analogues for the way that adults live their lives,” explained Geoff MacDonald, acting chair and professor in the department of psychology at U of T in a media statement. “For example, if when kids are scared they go look for their parents; as adults, if they got scared they’d often call their romantic partner.”

Dr. Ravin Alaei, resident physician and PhD from the department of psychology at U of T, came up with the thesis that musical preferences could add insight into attachment styles. He is the lead author of the study.

“I was seeing more and more research coming out about how people really put a lot of importance on music in their daily life when it came to making friendships and bonding with others,” he says. “And, for many, music can be a way of representing their identity.”

The results

The relationships they found between preferred song lyrics and attachment styles was direct. For example,

  • People who were rated high in attachment avoidance tended to prefer songs with lyrics that expressed the same relationship style;
  • They also tied the Big Five personality traits into the mix (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism);
  • People found high in neuroticism tended to prefer song lyrics that revolved around relationship anxieties.

The study notes relationships between preferences in lyrical content and attachment styles, and also, that overall trends had changed over the time period studied. The study’s findings appear to extend from individual results to society itself.

“We found that individuals higher in attachment avoidance favoured songs about relationships with avoidant lyrical themes. Moreover, we found that Western culture’s increasing social disengagement is reflected in increasingly avoidant popular song lyrics across 1946–2015. Social disconnection may therefore be both reflected and amplified by more avoidant lyrical content,” the researchers write.

It mirrors Western society’s real-life trend towards social isolation over the same period.

“If you go to the music from the ’50s or ’60s, it’s quite easy to find lyrics that match the secure style of attachment,” Alaei told the Toronto Star. Nowadays, it’s harder to find lyrics with that mode of expression.

What does it mean?

For individuals, it’s a matter of how you deal with the drama of human relationships. Your fave song lyrics can help you sort them out, or so it feels like.

“Lyrics matter, so pay attention to them,” says Alaei. “The lyrics of your favourite songs about relationships may help validate your thoughts and feelings, but may also reveal things about your experiences of relationships that you might not have realized — something that you’re going through repeatedly, that you keep coming up against.”

But, listening to your favourite songs may also be making things worse.

“As an anxious person, you should recognize that you’re vulnerable to a negative feedback loop, and your emotions snowballing,” says Alaei. “Music can be a very powerful exacerbator of that because it can stimulate deep emotions and memories, ultimately reinforcing your worries.”

It’s an interesting study and premise, but it leaves us wondering — what does our preference of opera arias reveal…?

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