Science Asks: Is There A Musical Personality?

Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida (CC0/Pixabay)

Researchers in Russia, Germany and the UK looked to answer an intriguing question: is there a musical personality? In other words, are there personality traits that make an individual more likely to become involved with music in one form or another?

Their paper, titled Personality and engagement with music: Results from network modeling in three adolescent samples, was published in the journal Psychology of Music in January 2023.

The study

Data was collected from three countries: Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany. The researchers looked for patterns in the data, using groups of teenagers at different schools. The study used the recognized standards the Big Five personality scales in analyzing their findings, as well as the Goldsmiths Musical Sophistication Index or Gold-MSI.

  • The Big Five personality traits are: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion,
    agreeableness, and emotional stability.
  • The Goldsmiths Musical Sophistication Index (Gold-MSI; Müllensiefen et al., 2014) uses five criteria: active engagement; emotions; musical training; perceptual abilities; and singing
    abilities.

There were some regional differences that could be due to local culture. In the UK, for example, only the link between music and openness—emotions was observed, whereas the German students also showed a link to extraversion.

  • The one link that remained consistent throughout the samples: openness.

That link involved four of the elements used to judge musical sophistication, including emotions, singing ability, musical training, and perceptual abilities. The findings reinforce previous research on the theme:

  • People who can perceive the emotions of a piece of music are also more open to new experience — and that relationship seems to work in the reverse as well. Those who displayed openness were better able to determine emotions in music.
  • Other studies have demonstrated that an affinity for arts and culture is associated with a stronger link to openness;
  • Ditto for imagination and sensitivity to culture;
  • Openness is also related to intelligence.

While the link wasn’t as strong across the board, the paper’s authors note that there is a link between musical involvement and the traits of extraversion — relied on by anyone wishing to perform in public, for example — and conscientiousness — required for all those disciplined hours of practice.

Notably, there was no link between musical engagement and either agreeableness or emotional stability.

Musical training itself has been linked to positive impacts on academic learning. Music, the brain, intelligence and personality — it’s an intriguing puzzle that science is only beginning to unravel.

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