PAST attempts to link personality to musical taste have foundered on the rocks of small sample sizes, culturally homogenous samples (usually of undergraduates at universities in rich countries) and the fact that most such studies relied on the participants themselves defining what genres they enjoyed. But Jason Rentfrow of Cambridge University and Gideon Nave of the University of Pennsylvania think they have bypassed these obstacles. As a consequence they believe, as they write in Psychological Science, that they have shown how personality traits can indeed predict musical preferences.

To overcome problems of sample size and diversity Dr Rentfrow, Dr Nave and their colleagues used the internet to recruit 22,252 participants of different ages and backgrounds from all around the world. In particular, 45% of their volunteers were over 22 and thus unlikely to be undergraduates. To work around the problem of letting participants define what they liked, they presented each of these volunteers with 25 excerpts of music that had not been publicly released but had been assessed and classified by expert musicologists. Each volunteer was also given a standard personality test that rates the five main components of personality: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Openness, Dr Rentfrow and Dr Nave found, was associated with an appreciation of “sophisticated” music (defined as inspiring, complex and dynamic) and a converse lack of appreciation for “mellow” music (romantic, relaxing and slow) and “contemporary” music (percussive, electric and not sad). Extroverts, by contrast, showed a preference for “unpretentious” music (uncomplicated, relaxing and acoustic). Those who scored high on agreeableness showed the appropriateness of that assessment by rating all the clips highly, regardless of genre. And those with elevated neuroticism scores did the reverse, rating everything as bad. Only the trait of conscientiousness failed to predict musical taste in any way. Perhaps conscientious people have better things to do than sit around all day listening to music.