Music Psychology

The journey to liking music is influenced by personality

Article in question: Hunter, P.G., & Schellenberg, E.G. (2011). Interactive effects of personality and frequency of exposure on liking for music. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 175-179. Free to view here

What is it that makes us like a certain piece of music while another person can detest the same collection of notes? And what is the cognitive process by which we come to like or dislike a piece of music in the first place? No doubt with music, as with all the aesthetic arts, there are different strokes for different folks and part of the beauty of music is that people can experience varying reactions, thoughts and feelings in the presence of the same stimulus. Aside from individual variations in taste however, there is a science behind how we come to like music. A new article by Patrick Hunter and Glen Schellenberg which will be out next year examines how our personality can influence the course of falling in, and also out of, love with a piece of music.

One of the major influences on our liking process is the ‘mere exposure effect’, whereby simple exposure is sufficient to enhance liking for an otherwise neutral stimulus even when we cannot explicitly remember hearing the stimulus. Put simply – if we are indifferent to a piece of music when we first hear it then we will like it more the more that we hear it. This relationship then follows a simply bell curve which was described first by William Wundt (1874) and later by Daniel Berlyne (1974). It follows the simple logical and physical principle of ‘what goes up must come down’ – eventually we will hear the piece one too many times (point of saturation or satiety) and we will start to dislike it until eventually it ends up driving us up the wall! – I get that way with Lady Gaga…

While the mere exposure effect is a well established and replicated phenomenon, it is influenced by other factors. The new article by Hunter and Schellenberg investigates how personality affects the liking process and how this interacts with the frequency with which we are exposed to music. The authors used the popular Big 5 personality dimensions as their measure; a single questionnaire which gives a rating of level of; 1) Agreeableness, 2) Conscientiousness, 3) Emotional Stability (or Neuroticism), 4) Extraversion, 5) Openness-to-Experience. Some of these dimensions are known to correlate with musical preferences and musicality, but so far no-one has looked into how they might influence the liking process with music, as defined by the mere exposure effect.

The authors suspected they might find a relationship between the liking process and Openness-to-Experience (OTE).  More specifically they hypothesised high OTE people would give:

1) Faster liking responses

2) Quicker satiety effects

WHY? Because OTE is associated with greater appreciation of novelty and a greater comfort with ambiguity. These individuals also actively seek and enjoy opportunities to ‘enlarge and examine experience’, and therefore don’t enjoy being exposed to the same thing over and over again.

The authors tested 79 undergraduates (52 women and 27 men) and played them eighteen 15 second excerpts from commercial recordings of orchestral concerti music (where there is one lead instrument), including samples taken from Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods. There was an initial exposure phase to the experiment followed by a liking phase. In the exposure phase participants heard 84 samples and identified the lead instrument. There were 6 excerpts in total that were presented either 2, 8 or 32 times, with 2 excerpts presented at each possible frequency. In the liking phase participants heard 6 excerpts form the exposure phase as well as 6 novel excerpts, and then finally rated all these pieces on a scale of 1-7 for liking.


  • As expected frequency of exposure affected the liking results alonf the line of the pattern within the Wundt/Berlyne bell curve – known in statistical terms as a quadratic trend: Lower frequency (0) and higher frequency (32) lead to lower ratings of liking than medium levels of exposure (2 and 8).
  • Also as predicted only OTE influenced the pattern of this typical liking response: Individuals who were high on this personality dimension responded more favourably to novel excerpts and less favourably to excerpts heard 32 times compared to participants who were low on this dimension.

Interestingly the authors also found that OTE predicted how people chose to listen to music, with high levels being associated with an intellectual listening style, as opposed to an emotional listening style or a background listening style (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2007). This finding suggests that these individuals might have paid more attention to the music in the experiment which might then have become familiar more quickly. Another possibility is that this group may be more familiar with classical musical styles (Rentflow & Gosling, 2003) and therefore adapted their listening more quickly to this particular genre.

Overall the findings reveal that the liking process in relation to Western classical music is influenced not only by mere exposure effects but also by personality type. How this conclusion fares with exposure to other musical styles and with other personality factors would both be interesting avenues for future research.


Berlyne, D. E. (1974). Studies in the new experimental aesthetics. Washington: Hemisphere.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Furnham, A. (2007). Personality and music: Can traits explain how people use music in everyday life? British Journal of Psychology, 98, 175–185.

Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2003). The do re mi’s of everyday life: The structure and personality correlates of music preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1236–1256.

Wundt, W. M. (1874). Grundzuge der physiologischen Psychologie [Outline of physiological psychology]. Leipzig: Engelmann.

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