What kind of music do you like? If you have trouble answering that question, you’re in good company, says Jason Rentfrow, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge in England. Most people’s music preferences cross genres and defy categorization — but that may not be the case for long, thanks to research by Rentfrow and colleagues that unearthed five factors underlying music preferences. Their research was published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In the first study, the researchers asked 706 participants to listen to excerpts from 52 songs and rate how much they liked each one on a scale from one to nine. Statistical analysis revealed that, rather than being guided by genre, five previously unknown factors were driving people’s preferences. A follow-up study recruited music experts who attached names to the categories: mellow, unpretentious, sophisticated, intense and contemporary (MUSIC). A case in point: A person who likes music high in the mellow and unpretentious factors would, for example, enjoy singer-songwriter Brad Paisley, while someone who enjoys sophisticated and unpretentious music would rather listen to banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, even though both artists share the “country” genre.

Like the ubiquitous “Big Five” personality factors, the five “MUSIC” factors could form a foundation for future research, says Rentfrow.

“It will allow researchers to investigate music preferences in people from different age groups who might not otherwise have a vocabulary for doing so,” says Rentfrow.

The factors could also have practical applications, perhaps by recommending new artists based on your digital music library, he adds. And next time someone asks you what kind of music you like, you might be able give a response as precise as an equation.

—S. Dingfelder