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Why Do We Have Different Tastes in Music?

Key factors influencing music preferences.

Key points

  • Our musical taste signals who we are to other people.
  • We generally like styles of music with which we are familiar.
  • Musical preferences tend to form in late adolescence and persist throughout adulthood.
Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay
Source: Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay

Music preference refers to the extent to which a person likes a particular kind of music over another. Why do we like the music we do? Where do our music preferences come from? The following are some of the main psychological factors that underlie people’s music preferences (Zatorre, 2023).

Identity motive. Our taste in music, film, art, coffee, and dress represents one of the essential features of who we are (Lidskog, 2016). People are drawn to musical styles that validate their self-perceptions and communicate that information to others. For example, listening to innovative music can serve to communicate the belief that one is creative and unconventional. And changes in preferences can be seen as a change in who we are because they affect how others view us. This change might also forge social bonds with groups or people who hold the same musical (or aesthetic) preferences we endorse.

Reminiscence bump. Musical preferences tend to form in late adolescence and persist throughout adulthood. Music heard during childhood and adolescence creates more durable memories than music heard at other ages. The music we listen to during our early teens creates a strong sense of nostalgia in later years.

Mood management. People prefer styles of music that support their mood or emotional state. For example, listening to uplifting music may help to maintain a positive mood. Fast and upbeat music complements various energetic activities, from dancing to socializing. Simple music at a soft listening level is psychologically soothing.

Context. People prefer auditory content that complements the activities they regularly pursue. For example, people’s preferences tended to change based on the time of day. Most people listen to more relaxing music at night but more intense music during the day. And when exercising, people prefer upbeat and stimulating music.

Exposure effects. Exposures shape our musical preferences. We tend to prefer the music that we are most familiar with. At early ages, our musical exposure depends entirely on what our parents listen to. However, as we get older, we usually develop more control over our musical listening choices. One explanation is that repeated exposures can be considered as a form of classical conditioning that can increase liking of stimuli through a process of conditioning. Furthermore, repeated exposure generates a certain processing fluency (i.e., a measure of how easy it is to think about something) that can result in greater judgments of attraction. Processing fluency is experienced as pleasant.

Personality trait. Music preferences reveal valuable information about a person’s character (Schäfer & Mehlhorn, 2017). People prefer styles of music that are consistent with their personalities. For instance, people who have a need for creative and intellectual stimulation prefer unconventional and complex musical styles (e.g., classical, jazz, folk), and people who are sociable and enthusiastic prefer musical styles that are energetic and lively. Overall, individuals seek musical genres that reflect and reinforce aspects of their personalities.

In sum, we are drawn to musical styles that satisfy and reinforce our psychological needs. An understanding of our music preferences can help discover things about us and others because of their music preferences. For example, research shows that similarities in music preferences may contribute to relationship satisfaction for romantic partners or even roommates.


Lidskog Rolf (2016), The role of music in ethnic identity formation in diaspora: a research review, International Social Science Journal, Vol. 66, nr 219-220, s. 23-38.

Schäfer, T., & Mehlhorn, C. (2017). Can personality traits predict musical style preferences? a meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 116, 265-273.

Zatorre, Robert (2023). From Perception to Pleasure: The Neuroscience of Music and Why We Love It. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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