I love music, and especially love songs. The first time I heard “First Times,” by Ed Sheeran, which he wrote for his wife, it moved me to tears. I’m also a sucker for bittersweet songs, like “The One” by Taylor Swift, where she laments the fact that things didn’t work out with her ex-boyfriend.
Do our musical preferences say something about our personality or how we view relationships? According to new research, they just may.
In the study, 469 participants listed 7-15 of their favorite relationship songs—meaning, songs about falling in love, breaking up, or anything else related to relationships. Then, they filled out questionnaires that measured their personality traits (like extraversion and conscientiousness) and their attachment style in relationships—whether they feel secure, anxious, avoidant, or a combination of anxious and avoidant.
People with an anxious attachment style tend to fear being abandoned and act clingingly, while people with an avoidant attachment style often withdraw from others and act as if they don’t care. Those with a secure attachment style see themselves as worthy of love and enjoy being close to others.
I heard that you are settled down
That you found a girl and you are married now
I heard that your dreams came true
Guess she gave you things that I did not give to you
...I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited
But I could not stay away, I could not fight it
I had hoped you'd see my face and that you'd be reminded
That for me it is not over.
—Adele, “Someone Like You”
I got flowers in the spring
I got you to wear my ring
And when I'm sad, you are a clown
And if I get scared, you are always around
Do not let them say your hair's too long
‘Cause I do not care, with you I cannot go wrong
Then put your little hand in mine
There ain't no hill or mountain we cannot climb.
—Sonny & Cher, “I Got You Babe”
You must understand...that it's only the thrill of boy meeting girl
...You must try to ignore that it means more than that
What's love got to do, got to do with it?
What's love but a secondhand emotion?
What's love got to do, got to do with it?
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?
—Tina Turner, “What's Love Got to do With It”
Mixed anxious and avoidant
I hate you, I love you
I hate that I love you
Do not want to, but I cannot put
Nobody else above you
...I do not mean no harm, I just miss you on my arm
Wedding bells were just alarms
Caution tape around my heart.
—Gnash (featuring Olivia O'Brien), i hate u, i love u
Research assistants read the lyrics of the songs people chose—almost 5,000 in total—and rated how much those lyrics reflected different attachment styles. Songs focused on things like pulling away from a partner even when one wanted to be close or feeling nervous about becoming too intimate were considered more avoidant. Songs expressing worry or rumination about a partner not caring enough or about scaring a partner away with neediness were considered more anxious. And songs with themes around feeling safe and close in relationships were considered more secure (see the sidebar for examples from the paper).
Besides looking at how the lyrics reflected attachment styles, the researchers also used a linguistics program to measure how often positive and negative feelings were expressed in the songs. This was done to help rule out the possibility that emotional content was responsible for people’s preferences rather than attachment themes.
According to the analysis, those who were more avoidant preferred songs with avoidant themes, while people who scored high in neuroticism—who are prone to worry—preferred songs expressing more anxious themes. And these findings weren’t affected by the emotional tone of the song.
According to the lead author, Ravin Alaei of the University of Toronto, this is the first study that examines how song lyrics play a role in music preferences and points to a possible reason why.
“One reason people turn to music is because it can validate what they think, feel, and do in relationships—the most important arena of life for many people—and lyrics matter for that,” he says. “People enjoy having their feelings and thoughts spoken back to them; they find it meaningful.”
How does this work in real life? Take, for example, a breakup. If you’re more avoidant around relationships, you might find it comforting or empowering to listen to songs expressing the idea that relationships don’t matter much or are bound to disappoint you anyway (in other words, good riddance!). On the other hand, if you tend to be more neurotic—maybe you often ruminate about what you did wrong in relationships—you might be soothed by a more anxiety-laden song that makes you feel less alone.
While Alaei believes using music in this way could be beneficial in the short term, he cautions against using music to bolster problematic attitudes in the long run.
“It might be good to sometimes seek out validation for what you’re going through, but you have to also think about the potential consequences of constantly listening to music that reinforces your negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in relationships,” he says.
Interestingly, he and his colleagues didn’t find a consistent pattern in musical preferences for secure or anxiously attached individuals—though the finding on neurotic personalities suggests there may be some missed connection.
“Neuroticism or emotional instability is related and overlaps some with anxious attachment, but it’s not the same thing,” he says. “So, I think it’s still up in the air what an anxiously attached person likes in terms of song lyrics.”
Music preferences may reflect societal trends, too
In a provocative extension of their findings, Alaei and his colleagues turned their attention toward societal preferences for music. Drawing upon Billboard’s charts, they pulled together the 60 most popular songs in 1946, 1950, and then every five years after that through 2015. With fewer songs to pull from in earlier years, they ended up with a total of 823 songs for analysis.
After rating how much these songs’ lyrics reflected different attachment themes, they compared songs from 1946–1965 to those from 1990–2015 and then looked at how song themes changed every five years. In both cases, more recent popular songs were likelier to have avoidant attachment themes and less secure lyrics than older popular songs.
Alaei believes this could reflect a trend in Western society toward more avoidance in relationships—perhaps because people are less connected than they used to be.
“We have become more individualistic, and we feel lonelier these days than people used to several decades ago. Income inequality may lead people to have an ‘us versus them’ mentality, divorce rates are higher, and social media may, ironically, make people feel less connected,” he says. “There could be other explanations, too, but that’s what pops out for me right now.”
What does this mean for you and me? It may mean we should consider more closely how music reflects and shapes our personal lives—both at individual and societal levels. If our favorite songs devalue relationships, perhaps we should at least take note and consider whether we want to listen to them over and over again.
“Really pay attention to what message your favorite music is promoting and whether that’s the way you want to think and feel about your relationship—whether it’s productive,” he says. “It’s important for people to receive validation for what they’re going through, sure. But at some point, I wouldn’t want that validation to turn into a destructive process.”