Scientists Link Common Personality Trait To Musical Ability

Having a more "open" personality is linked to being pretty sophisticated when it comes to music, new research shows.
A new study suggests that the personality trait "openness" can predict your musical ability and sophistication.
A new study suggests that the personality trait "openness" can predict your musical ability and sophistication.
Tara Moore via Getty Images

Psychologists have long known that some people are unusually curious and adventurous, and more willing than others to try new things.

Now there's new research suggesting that these individuals -- people with "open" personalities -- are also more likely to be gifted musically.

"We had expected to see that openness predicted musical ability for those who played a musical instrument, but we were pleasantly surprised to see that openness also predicted musical ability for those who had no musical experience at all," David Greenberg, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Cambridge and lead author of a paper about the research, told The Huffington Post in an email.

For the paper, which was published in this month's Journal of Research in Personality, Greenberg and his collaborators tested the musical abilities (including the ability to perceive rhythms and recall melodies) of more than 7,800 men and women, including musicians and non-musicians.

Then the participants completed questionnaires designed to gauge their levels of extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience -- the so-called "Big Five" personality traits.

When the researchers analyzed their data, they noticed that openness had the strongest link to musical ability out of all of the personality traits. This was the case even when the researchers took into account demographic variables and musical experience.

The researchers also found that extraversion was linked to higher self-reported singing abilities, which suggests that being extraverted may allow singers to be more assertive and comfortable in the spotlight, they said.

"There may be other factors in addition to personality that affect the development of musical ability," Dr. Michael Lamb, professor of psychology at the university and a co-author of the paper, said in a written statement. "For example, what role does parenting play in fostering musicality in their children? Do certain parenting styles encourage musicality more than others?"

Lamb said questions like these should be investigated. The researchers noted that their findings may help teachers use information about their students' personalities to determine who might be most successful in various music programs.

In separate studies that have explored the connection between music and personality, "openness" also has been linked to having a preference for sad-sounding tunes, as well as the classical and jazz genres.

In fact, people who say that they enjoy sad-sounding music tend to score high on openness, empathy and agreeableness in personality tests, Dr. David Huron, a distinguished professor of music cognition at Ohio State University in Columbus and author of the upcoming The Science of Sad Sounds, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

"Some people think that our musical behaviors are random, but recent research is showing that our daily musical experiences are tied to our personality and even other factors such as our thinking styles," Greenberg said. "For example, another recent study this past summer from our team showed that people’s empathy and systemizing levels were linked to their musical preferences."

Dr. Emery Schubert, an associate professor of music psychology at the University of New South Wales who has worked alongside Huron and was not involved in the new research, told HuffPost that studies linking a personality trait to a behavior, such as musical preference or ability, should be reviewed with a careful eye, but the new research seems to make an important contribution to the field of music psychology.

"An impressive part of this study is that it is carefully designed and makes some connections between musical experiences and personality traits that were not made before," he said.

What else does your personality say about you? Check out the "Talk Nerdy To Me" episode below to find out.

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