Most people's music preferences fall into one of four broad categories, according to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 84, No. 6).

What's more, preferences for those categories correlate with traits such as personality, political orientation, verbal ability and athleticism.

"We can learn a lot about personality by looking at everyday life, and music preference is just one facet of everyday life," says Jason Rentfrow, a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin who co-authored the study with his adviser, psychologist Samuel Gosling, PhD.

Rentfrow and Gosling collected data on the music preferences of several thousand undergraduates at The University of Texas using a new scale--the Short Test of Music Preferences (STOMP). They also analyzed the music collections of people who use Internet file-sharing services.

In both samples, music preferences tended to clump into one of four categories, which Rentfrow and Gosling dubbed "reflective and complex," "intense and rebellious," "upbeat and conventional" and "energetic and rhythmic." Each category included several kinds of music. "Reflective and complex," for example, covered classical, jazz, blues and folk, while "upbeat and conventional" covered country, religious, soundtrack and pop.

Those categories turn out to be significantly correlated with a variety of personal traits, including "Big Five" personality measures.

People who listen to "reflective and complex" music, for example, score highly on openness to new experiences, verbal ability, self-perceived intelligence and political liberalism, while people who listen to "upbeat and conventional" music score highly on extraversion, self-perceived physical attractiveness, athleticism and political conservatism.

Two factors appear to drive the connection between music preferences and personal characteristics, say Rentfrow and Gosling. First, people choose to listen to music that suits their moods and activities. "People who enjoy spending time with others, people who enjoy talking and socializing, tend to enjoy music that is also extraverted--in some ways, party music," says Rentfrow.

People also use music to inform others about themselves. "Adolescents, in particular, use music as a way to fit into groups, as a way to manage people's impressions of them," says Rentfrow. "It's a badge, if you will, of their identity."

This study is part of a broader effort to understand the relationship between personality and everyday life--an area overly neglected by psychologists, says Gosling.

"If we try to partition up our day, we listen to music, we pray, we tend to our gardens, we cook, we eat food," he says. "It's amazing how little many of these things that really occupy our days are studied by psychologists."

--E. BENSON