Music and the Mind

Not a lot of people know this – before I became a hypnotist I attended the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester – that was from 1975 to 1979 and I graduated with a diploma and a B.A.(hons) degree. A lot of the time I was supposed to be in college, I was actually bunking out of college – out playing with professional orchestras, something that most music students do after they leave college.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Hallé would book me regularly as an extra player in the percussion section [I was a whizz on tuned percussion.] Quite often I would work in the evenings with various freelance bands like the Manchester Sinfonia and Manchester Mozart Orchestra. For four summers I played with the famous Max Jaffa Orchestra at the Spa Grand Hall in Scarborough. And I loved every minute of it.

Why am I telling you this? Because I noticed that classical musicians were a special and unusual breed. Rank and file orchestral musicians were not very well paid – I think they are still quite poorly paid, but there were plenty of characters and players who were literally legends in their own time. Some were brilliant, others perhaps not so, but all were in it for one reason only – they loved music and they loved playing music. There have been times when I genuinely missed the job, missed the music, missed working with other musicians, and missed making loud noises on the timpani.

But back to the subject in hand… Classical musicians are… well… they’re very organised. Their brains are incredibly well organised, not only when they’re making music, but also in other areas of their lives. All musicians’ diaries for instance are kept rigidly up to date. To be late for rehearsal, or worse, for a performance, is a cardinal sin, one that is rarely forgiven. Musicians who one moment held a secure position have been the next fired on the spot for lateness.

Musicians are extremely good at recognising patterns (which is why they spend so much time practicing scales and arpeggios) and are fastidious in their attention to detail. Freelancers in particular enjoy regular and familiar working patterns, patterns that tend to repeat annually. I too am very organised. My diary is always absolutely up to date and I can sleep soundly at night, secure in the knowledge that my professional life is organised up to two years ahead.

I don’t say this to be disparaging, but some of the musicians I knew were also, well… a bit precious. Some might say even perhaps pretentious, and some undoubtedly were. But none of them were rude or nasty or aggressive or anti-social. Most had few interests outside the world of classical music, but considering that they practised for eight to ten hours a day, that is perhaps understandable. Classical musicians are trained to a fantastically high standard and music – that is the written music on the page – is a highly complex language of pitch, rhythm, tempo, phrasing and instructions given in the form of geometric shapes, arcs, various squiggly lines, letters and words not usually in English. Learning to sight-read music fluently and perfectly is as difficult as learning to read Chinese to the same standard.

Meanwhile, a few hundred metres down the road at Manchester University, the students there( my girlfriend was a psychology student) were a rather different breed. They had varied interests outside their own field of study; they didn’t work quite as hard and consequently they appeared to enjoy more free time. They went out more, got drunk more and listened to rock music. [I knew musicians who also enjoyed rock, although no one I knew liked punk, and yet so far as I could tell, their personalities and interests were not really any different from the eight-hours-a-day-in-a-practice-room variety.]

I am not attempting to stereotype my friends or others I knew in the late 1970’s but I have to say that there were noticeable differences between the Classical music and rock music camps. Musicians were definitely more intelligent, more organised and absolutely definitely not interested in sport! Fast forward forty years and psychologists are only now beginning to explore a possible link between musical preferences and personality.

The first attempt to measure the relationship between personality and musical preference was carried out by researchers in 2003, in Austin Texas and it was they who devised the Short Test Of Musical Preferences (STOMP) to test the theory.

Leading the field in the search for this link today (2015) is David Greenberg, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Cambridge. Mr Greenberg is working on a project called the Musical Universe. He has formulated an experiment to test the link between musical taste and personality. Anyone can contribute to Greenberg’s research by taking part in a simple quiz – just go to and select the Musical Taste option.

So far, thousands of people have been involved with the project, filling in written questionnaires designed to pigeonhole their personalities and find out what kind of music they prefer. According to Mr Greenberg, musical preferences may be linked to three different types of brain.

The first type are known as the Empathisers (possibly a good name for a rock band?) They possess a well-developed ability to understand thoughts and feelings in themselves and others. They also prefer the kind of music that evokes deep emotion. (This preference would surely include both classical and popular music – think Tchaikovsky and Whitney Houston.)

The second type are the Systemisers (possibly an even better name for a rock band?) They are more easily able to identify patterns in music and, according to Greenberg, prefer more intense music that forms complex sounds. This would certainly apply to all the musicians I knew. We were trained to deconstruct symphonic scores, isolating themes, counterpoint, instrumentation, as well as the complex structures that create the emotional response in musical works. [The complex sounds and colours of the musical spectrum is far more wide-ranging when it’s coming from a seventy piece symphony orchestra than when it emanates from three guitars and a drum kit. Think Star Wars as opposed to We’re all going on a summer holiday.]

So… empathisers are interested in music’s emotional qualities and how it makes them feel, whereas systemisers are more intrigued by the complexity of its structural qualities.

No big surprise then that people who liked both emotional music and intense music tend to have similar scores in empathising and systemising tests, which also indicates an ability to think in a balanced way.

I must add a note of caution here: it is too easy to fall into the trap of discriminating between classical and popular music when the real point is the ability to distinguish between well composed and arranged music and badly written or arranged music. Hit me with your rhythm stick is just as musically mature and complex as Beethoven; I did it my way just as emotionally challenging as Rachmaninov. The Blue Danube sounds great when played by a full orchestra, with its variation in colours and differences between strings woodwind and brass, but positively dire if played on a Hammond organ.

The study found that people who prefer reflective and complex music such as classical and jazz, scored highly when tested for openness to experience and saw themselves as politically liberal, intelligent but not very athletic. So just like all my classical music friends. Greenberg believes that the converse may also be true – that openness to experience could be an indicator of musical ability, even in those who have never picked up a musical instrument.

Those who preferred heavy metal and heavy rock music were similar to jazz-lovers, but more likely to think of themselves as athletic, very much unlike my classical music friends.

They found that fans of upbeat music like country, western, country & western (like there’s a difference) mainstream pop and movie theme tunes, on the other hand, tended to have low scores for openness to experience and overall intelligence, although they were more likely to be agreeable, extroverted, conscientious and think of themselves as attractive, wealthy, athletic and politically conservative.

At this stage, I think it would have been interesting, not to mention useful, to also test for religiosity and belief in the supernatural.

The third type are people who prefer energetic and rhythmic music. Those people were also extroverted, agreeable, attractive and athletic, but they did not share the political inclination, wealth or lower intelligence scores as lovers of emotive and more complex music.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that our preferences in music reflect who we are – and that includes personality and the way we think. It may even reflect the way our brains are wired at birth. Musical appreciation may well be hereditary – all my family were musical, as were the families of the majority of the instrumentalists and singers at the Royal Northern, so I think that probably proves the point.

There is something else that should also be considered here. Great composers stamp their personality, their beliefs and their emotional state of being onto their music. Beethoven speaks to the audience and is often political; Mahler addresses the whole world with his expansive symphonies, his ideas of fate and resurrection; Tchaikovsky speaks directly to the individual – Tchaikovsky reaches into your chest and rips out your heart.

I would say that listening and creating are two sides of the same coin. You could take this one step further and apply the same rule to soloists and conductors, who routinely impress their own interpretations on music. My orchestral experience is proof of this – same piece, different meaning, depending on the soloist or the conductor.

We already know that sad music can make us feel down and uplifting music can lighten our mood. It could be our brains release a pleasure hormone in response to the music in order to calm or excite us. Empathisers may get a bigger dose, since the region of their brains responsible for regulating the chemical’s release is larger. Systemiser’s brains are bigger in regions responsible for recognizing patterns, so when they hear intense or highly structured music, that could be the reason they prefer it for its complexity.

The Empathising/Systemising Theory was first developed by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University. Professor Baron-Cohen is a renowned researcher and expert on autism, and also Ali G’s brother, believe it or not.

The Empathising/Systemising Theory proposes that on a level below normal personality there are individual differences in the wiring of the brain that result in two different ways a person may process information – empathising and systemising, hence the name.

Empathisers tend to be good listeners and can put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Systemisers can have an average or even high ability to do this too – it’s not that they necessarily lack empathy, but their systemising abilities are greater.

According to the Musical Universe Project and the Short Test of Musical Preferences, musical taste falls into distinctive groups, each indicative of the listener’s personality:

Mellow music can be romantic, quiet, relaxing, slow, sad, soft, and usually evokes a deep emotional response. This kind of music is unpretentious, uncomplicated and often includes ‘easy-listening,’ country & western, folk, and singer songwriter genres.

People who have a preference for mellow music have a well-developed ability to understand the feelings of others as well as themselves. People who enjoy both mellow and intense music score equally in empathy and systemic tests, indicating balanced thinking.

Upbeat music can be defined as music that is er… well, upbeat. Obvious really. Eye of the Tiger, Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree, that sort of thing.

People who like this sort of musical drivel, including some country music (Hank Williams for example) and mainstream pop tend to achieve low scores for openness to new experiences and intelligence.

However, they are more likely to be agreeable (especially when they have had a few drinks) extroverted (especially when they have had a few drinks) and, perhaps surprisingly, conscientious. They also see themselves as attractive (especially when they’ve had a few drinks) wealthy (they have a penchant for ostentatious displays of ‘bling’) athletic (they love going to the gym and talking about going to the gym) and are in the main politically conservative (Sun reader.)

Sophisticated music is more inspiring, soaring, intelligent, complex and dynamic, sometimes percussive with strident themes and orchestration. Includes classical, operatic, traditional jazz.

People who like sophisticated and more complex music score highly on openness to experience and see themselves as politically liberal (some of them may read The Guardian) intelligent and not at all athletic.

These are people who can identify patterns (and not just in music) and systems (systemisers) prefer intense music that forms complex sounds.

Intense music is loud, sometimes even aggressive and definitely not meant for relaxation or easy listening. Neither is it inspiring. It includes the simplicity of heavy rock, punk, heavy metal, heavy ‘pop,’ and sometimes ‘classic rock’ genres.

Contemporary music is usually percussive, electric and definitely not soppy or sad. It includes Electronica, Latin, Acid house, Jazz funk, Garage and other loud and obnoxious shit music generally played by people who look as if they haven’t had a wash for a week.

People who like energetic, punchy music and rhythmic music are agreeable, also extroverted, attractive and athletic. However, they do not display the political inclinations, wealth or lower intelligence scores of lovers of upbeat music.

So, in conclusion, the ‘systemisers’ (the ones who prefer intense music that forms complex sounds) possess the drive to analyse and explore systems in order to understand the underlying rules that govern a system’s behaviour. Like the composers, they also have the drive to construct systems. They also tend to be male. These people intuitively figure out how things work and what the rules are. Tell tale signs include repetitive behaviour, an obsession with arranging things and an eye for detail. They are also more likely to be less sociable.

Empathisers on the other hand tend to be female. They are the ones who prefer more mellow music that elicits an emotional response. They are able to identify other’s feelings and emotions and respond to these proportionately. Unlike the ‘systemisers’ who can spot patterns and rules, they have the intuition and empathy to understand how other people are feeling and can treat others with care and sensitivity. They are relaxed about details and are socially communicative.

So now we have something of a dichotomy – because trained musicians are all these things combined. They have the intelligence (both emotional and technical) to interpret a musical score; they also have the intuition to recognise the feelings and emotions reflected in the music. In fact classical musicians can recognise, interpret and enjoy all these things just by looking at the score – they don’t actually have to hear the music to appreciate it!

Herein lies the danger in trying to pigeonhole humanity. In order to accurately do it, we would have to have seven billion separate boxes and then set about the mammoth task of sorting them out into some semblance of order. I am always deeply suspicious of any attempt to describe the human condition in terms of tables and graphs because we are all more than just the sum of our parts and to reduce humanity to a series of pie charts runs the risk of discrimination and possibly racism.

We are all both Empathisers and ‘Systemisers’, just with different emphases on balance. Musical preference, I suspect, is just the tip of the iceberg. Studying the links between these behaviours, as interesting as it is (I find it very interesting) will of course lead to a better understanding of humanity and its predictable and unpredictable behaviour, but there are too many other blanks in the equation left to consider.

It will take a lot more persistence and effort, including bringing in other disciplines and discoveries to get closer. [This is no criticism of David Greenberg and other researchers, whose work I have tremendous respect for.] For instance, and this is one of my big interests, we should be taking a closer look at the connection between music, emotion and suggestibility; music and spirituality, and the link between music, suggestibility, the visual arts and personality. I have a lot of searching still to do, but this research touched a nerve and is a subject close to my heart. The temptation is to listen ever more closely…

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.

About Andrew Newton

andrew newton hypnotist

Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

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