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"Soul Meets Body" - How Music and Relationships are Connected

As noted by my colleagues in previous articles, similarity between potential romantic partners predicts feelings of attraction and love.1 “Similarity” can include things like similar backgrounds (e.g., nationality), physical features, personality, hobbies, attitudes, and beliefs.

What about music preferences? As discussed in a recent post, music and personality expression are intertwined. People make judgments of others’ personalities based on music tastes,2 and many people consider their music preferences to be “social badges” that are more central to their personality expression than books, clothing, food, movies, and TV.3 In fact, in a study on initial impressions over a 6-week period, music was the most frequent topic of conversation between people who were just getting to know each other, and was more frequent than any other topic over the first 5 weeks.2

Why is music so important? It may be that having similar taste in music leads people to believe they have similar personalities, which in turn facilitates attraction. Sounds reasonable, but that’s actually not the case. The link between music and relationship development has to do with similar values and ideals, rather than similar personalities and traits. Across 3 studies, psychologists demonstrated that music taste similarity and social attraction are connected through value similarity (see the figure below).4 In other words, when participants viewed profiles of others who had similar music tastes, that led participants to believe they had similar values, which then led to increased social attraction (this effect was also found in college roommates who were randomly paired to live together in dorms by the university administration).

Here are a few examples of the types of “values” measured in this research: conservatism (tradition, conformity, and security), self-transcendence (universalism and benevolence), self-enhancement (power and achievement), and openness to change (hedonism, stimulation, and self-direction). When the same participants in these studies were asked about general personality traits (e.g., shyness, responsibility), this did not have the same result. It appears that common values and ideals are the “missing link” between similar music taste and attraction.

To summarize, music preferences provide information about a person’s core values, and people exhibit “musical bonding” early in relationship development through the feeling that they have similar values and ideals.  Importantly, this behavior is not unique to Americans; these behaviors are found in German and Chinese samples as well.

So, sharing your music selection with a new friend or partner is a great idea, especially if you want to get past more surface-level personality traits. You’ll get closer to knowing a person’s “soul” with music (disclosure: I borrowed the title for this post from a Death Cab For Cutie song).

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1Byrne, D. (1971). The attraction paradigm. New York: Academic Press.

2Rentfrow, P. & Gosling, S. (2006). Message in a Ballad: The Role of Music Preferences in Interpersonal Perception. Psychological Science, 17 (3), 236-242.

3Rentfrow, 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.

4Boer, D., Fischer, R., Strack, M., Bond, M., Lo, E., & Lam, J. (2011). How Shared Preferences in Music Create Bonds Between People: Values as the Missing Link. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (9), 1159-1171.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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