Why You Love Music

From Mozart to Metallica--The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds


By John Powell

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A delightful journey through the psychology and science of music, Why You Love Music is the perfect book for anyone who loves a tune.

Music plays a hugely important role in our emotional, intellectual, and even physical lives. It impacts the ways we work, relax, behave, and feel. It can make us smile or cry, it helps us bond with the people around us, and it even has the power to alleviate a range of medical conditions. The songs you love (and hate, and even the ones you feel pretty neutral about) don’t just make up the soundtrack to your life — they actually help to shape it.

In Why You Love Music, scientist and musician John Powell dives deep into decades of psychological and sociological studies in order to answer the question “Why does music affect us so profoundly?” With his relaxed, conversational style, Powell explores all aspects of music psychology, from how music helps babies bond with their mothers to the ways in which music can change the taste of wine or persuade you to spend more in restaurants. Why You Love Music will open your eyes (and ears) to the astounding variety of ways that music impacts the human experience.


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What Is Your Taste in Music?

Your musical taste says quite a lot about you. In the hands of a psychologist, a list of your ten favorite pieces of music can reveal details about how extroverted you are, what sort of background you're from, and even how old you are. The age estimate is pretty straightforward because a surprisingly large proportion of your favorite music will have been produced when you were in your late teens and early twenties. The more psychological aspects of your "musical profile" are the result of decades of research into musical taste and our emotional responses to music. Some of the results of this research have been surprising, to say the least. In this book I'll be looking into the ways in which music affects our lives, from how it brings tears to your eyes, to how it can be used to make you buy more drinks in a restaurant. Let's begin by looking at your taste in music.

At last count there were about 7 billion people on the planet, which of course means that there are 7 billion personalities, all with their own musical likes and dislikes. Faced with the huge numbers involved, the early researchers into people's taste in music decided to make things easier for themselves by reducing the number of personality types in the world to just two: the posh and the rabble. They then went on to work out that there were only two types of music: posh and lowbrow. From there it was but a short step to come up with the startling revelation that posh people liked posh music and the rabble liked all the other stuff.

How refreshingly simple life was in the mid-twentieth century.

Thankfully, things have moved on a bit since then.

Since the 1960s a lot of research has concentrated upon the problem of how to assess people's personalities reliably. Everybody's personality is made up of a combination of several traits, and by the early 1990s psychologists were starting to agree that there were five basic personality traits that can be reliably measured.1 These are:

Openness (also referred to as Culture or Intellect)


Extroversion (or Energy)


Neuroticism (or Emotional instability)

Recently a sixth trait, a combination of honesty and humility, has been considered for inclusion in the list.

The point of all this is that it's possible to get a rough description of someone's personality by ranking them, on a scale from one to ten, in these five or six characteristics.

In order to match these personality traits to musical tastes, the music psychologists found it useful to divide all the various types of music up into a small number of categories.2 After a lot of analysis, they found that the musical genres could be grouped together like this:

Reflective and complex music includes classical, jazz, folk, and blues.

Intense and rebellious music includes rock, alternative, and heavy metal.

Upbeat and conventional music includes pop, sound tracks, religious, and country.

Energetic and rhythmic music includes rap, soul, and electronic.

OK, so—who likes what?

It has been found that enthusiasts for reflective and complex music tend to score high on openness, are generally poor at sports, good with words, and often politically liberal.

Fans of intense and rebellious music also tend to score high on openness and are skilled with words—but they are usually good at sports.

Lovers of upbeat and conventional music tend to score high on extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, are good at sports, and are often politically conservative.

Party animals who are keen on energetic and rhythmic music tend to score high on extroversion and agreeableness and are often politically liberal.

These are, of course, just general trends. I'm sure there are a few right-wing professional sportsmen who are jazz enthusiasts, and we all know a disagreeable, introverted pop fan or two. But these trends, identified by psychologists Peter Rentfrow and Sam Gosling,3 are real. They are, as the specialists say, clear and robust. Although you might have been able to guess some of these results, they are valuable because they are not based on assumptions or guesswork; they are the outcome of statistical analysis of thousands of listeners from America and Europe. There may be similar groupings in other cultures, but we don't know yet. This is a fairly new area of research that has looked only at Western listening patterns so far.

One other piece of information from these studies that is clear and robust is that the four musical genre groupings, which link, say, rock, alternative, and heavy metal together, or combine rap with soul and electronic music, really do work as taste groupings. So if, for example, you like blues, there is a good chance that you'll enjoy the genres that are grouped with it—jazz, folk, and classical.

The fact that we can divide music up into genres tells us that the link between personality and musical taste can't be purely musical. If an entirely music-based choice were involved, then your taste would be for a particular type of sound, but within each musical genre—even within a single album—the range of musical sound is enormous. When I was seventeen, the fourth Led Zeppelin album was considered the pinnacle of heavy rock by all of us who cared about such things (it's the album with "Stairway to Heaven" on it). If we look back at the album from a distance, however, it's obvious that of the eight tracks involved, only four and a half of them are actually heavy rock. The third track, "The Battle of Evermore," is pure folk rock (complete with mandolins), and the first half of the famous "Stairway to Heaven" is an acoustic ballad that has the temerity to involve a couple of tootling recorders! Back in 1971 my friends and I had to go through a lot of angst and recalibration before we could accept the fact that the recorder was now a cool instrument rather than a wooden joke.

Speaking of angstful teenagers, many researchers have noticed that we form strong and loyal links to the music we listen to during our late teens and early twenties.4 As everyone over the age of thirty knows, your early adulthood music preferences are influenced by more than just the sound of the music involved. A lot of important stuff happens to you during late adolescence and early adulthood: you get your first taste of independence, first kiss, first hangover, first this, first that. It's a time of life when you have to work out your likes and dislikes. Psychologists Morris Holbrook and Robert Schindler have shown that during our late teens/early twenties, we consolidate our preferences for a wide range of things, from genres of novels to types of toothpaste.5 Naturally, our preferences are not created in a vacuum. Most of us deal with this difficult set of choices by aligning ourselves with a group of friends, and eventually we come up with a workable version of who we want to be.

As a young adult, you generally want to have prestige, or at least warm acceptance in your group of friends, and agreeing with them about things you like (clothes, music, etc.) is one way of achieving this acceptance. Certain artists and bands form the backbone of a musical genre—and you and your friends buy into the whole package rather than deciding that this or that track should be excluded from the genre just because it uses recorders. Another important point is that you and your friends can't consider yourselves to be "cool" unless almost everyone else is "uncool." Once you've decided that this or that band is cool, you want it to be your exclusive choice, so it can come as a terrible blow if your favorite band becomes part of the popular mainstream. A survey of thirteen-and fourteen-year-olds has shown that boys are more susceptible to following their friends' cool trends than girls are, as far as music is concerned, but most of us do it to some extent.6 As music journalist Carl Wilson puts it:

As much as we avow otherwise, few of us are truly indifferent to cool, not a little anxious about whether we have enough… and that's not being merely shallow: Being uncool has material consequences. Sexual opportunity, career advancement and respect, even elementary security can ride on it.7

The distinction between "cool" and "uncool" music becomes less of an issue as we get older, but is so important to a lot of teenagers that it has been used to manipulate their behavior. A number of town councils use "uncool" music to stop groups of young people from hanging around shopping centers, and anywhere else they don't want them to be. This technique has been known as the "Manilow method" ever since 2006, when Sydney's city council discovered the amazing dispersal effect that Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits had on groups of teenagers.

Although most nineteen-year-olds are convinced that the music they and their friends listen to is simply the best music there has ever been, it takes only a few seconds' thought (about ten years later) to realize that this can't be objectively true. So let's look at a few things that are true about your taste in music—whatever music it happens to be.

Most of us are pretty unadventurous. One of the first things we do when listening to a new piece of music is classify it.8 Is it bluegrass banjo? Seventies pop? Classical? Or something else? Then, if the piece fits into one of the musical styles we already enjoy, we give it some attention to decide whether or not we want to add it to the collection of music we like. If a piece doesn't fall into the "Oh, yes, I like this sort of stuff" category, then we don't give it much attention. The result of all this is that we end up gathering an ever-increasing number of similar musical pieces into our "like" categories, and the chances of enjoying a new category of music become pretty small unless we put some effort into it.

As you gather more examples of music you enjoy, you build up a model, or prototype, of a "typical piece I like." The closer any new piece comes to this prototype, the more easily you will accept it. Clearly, you won't be restricted to only one prototype; you'll develop a range of them within your favorite genre—slow/romantic, fast/exciting, etc.—covering various emotional states. And, of course, you can love a number of different genres. Having a wide range like this allows you to choose different types of music depending on what mood you are in and what you are doing.

One of the main things we take into account (consciously or subconsciously) when we are choosing something to listen to is its capacity to stimulate, or arouse, us. ("Arousal" in this context means the opposite of sleepiness.) We tend to be aroused by complex, loud music with a fast beat, and calmed down by simpler, slower, and quieter music. In this context, "complex" doesn't necessarily mean intellectually challenging; it just means that there is a lot going on for your brain to process. For example, fast banjo music is complex, but very few people would say that it was intellectual.

Psychologists Vladimir Konecni and Dianne Sargent-Pollock have looked into our responses to complexity and arousal in music. They found that people preferred to listen to simple music rather than complex, arousing stuff when they were trying to solve problems.9 Their perfectly reasonable conclusion from this result is that your brain is acting like a computer, and if you run complex programs in the background, you'll find that the main problem-solving program runs more slowly.

You will know from experience that sometimes we deliberately choose music that amplifies the emotional state we are in, and other times we choose music that does the opposite. If, for example, you are excitedly getting ready to go out to a party, you might put on some stimulating music to build the excitement even further. By contrast, if you've just gotten back from said party and are feeling excited because someone you fancy asked for your phone number, you'll choose to listen to something soothing and relaxing to help you calm down.

Our brain doesn't like to be either over-or under-stimulated, and listening to any sort of music involves the brain doing some work. So if you are on a boring motorway drive, you will find that complex, arousing music will reduce the boredom and help to keep you alert. If you then have to drive through a busy city center, you'll probably find yourself turning the music down, or off, or changing to something less demanding, because your brain is having trouble dealing with the complex music and the traffic at the same time.

When we are not dealing with difficult situations like driving in bad traffic, we have a Goldilocks attitude toward the complexity of the music we enjoy. We like it to be not too complicated, not too simple (boring), but just right—and this brings us to an interesting point about music we hear for the first time.

When we hear a piece of music for the first time, it has an extra layer of complexity as far as we are concerned because it's new to us. We don't know what chords or notes are coming next, and our brain is kept busy assessing what's going on. If we like the piece immediately and listen to it repeatedly, it becomes familiar, and its perceived complexity is reduced.10 Familiarity can cause certain pieces of music to fall below our "too simple" threshold—one of the reasons why some popular radio singles sound great until we've heard them twenty times, and we suddenly lose interest. The reverse can happen with music we initially rate as being too complicated. After a few listenings, the complexity reduces and the piece might then drop into our "just right" category. This has happened to me on several occasions when two tracks—one of which was immediately approachable and the other rather complicated—have appeared on the same album. Initially I have played the album to hear the charming, easy track and I've just had to put up with the more difficult one. Then, as I've become familiar with the album, my preference has changed from one track to the other because the pleasant track has become rather boring and the difficult one has become easier and more rewarding to listen to.

As we get older, although we retain a love for the music of our youth, we often get more sophisticated in our tastes. We start taking more pleasure from things that are interesting rather than those that are simply nice. In music, as in most things, your "too simple" threshold rises as your experience grows. Sophistication doesn't automatically imply poshness, but music that is regarded as posh, such as classical and jazz, often provides a fairly high level of mental stimulation compared to pop music, which is why many music fans become attracted to these genres later in life, even if they weren't keen on them when they were under thirty.

Apart from the complexity and arousal level, another factor that influences what we choose to listen to, or how happy we are with someone else's choice, is how appropriate the music is to the situation in which it's being played. I don't think I'm alone in feeling that the "Bridal March" ("Here Comes the Bride") is one of the dullest pieces of music ever written, but we all smile and nod when it's played at weddings because it has become the standard sound track to the bride walking down the aisle.

Richard Wagner wrote this uninspiring dirge as part of his 1850 opera Lohengrin, and it would have sunk into the obscurity it deserves had it not been for the fact that Queen Victoria's daughter, who was imaginatively named… Victoria, chose it as her wedding march (maybe the princess wasn't expecting married life to be much fun). Her choice of music for leaving the church (Mendelssohn's "Wedding March") is considerably more upbeat, but it does sound more like the accompaniment to a military victory than a romantic one. Nevertheless, in those days everything the royals did was instantly fashionable, and so everyone who was anyone started using the same music for their weddings.

That's how it all started, but everything should have changed (at least for the church leaving music) when the Duke of Kent married Katharine Worsley in 1961 to the far superior, joyful sound of the Toccata by Charles-Marie Widor. The royals have been doing their best in this direction ever since: Princess Anne in 1973, and Prince Edward in 1999 both chose the Widor Toccata for their weddings. So why are the rest of us still putting up with tunes that sound as though they could have been written by a six-year-old with a xylophone? Why isn't Widor's Toccata floating out of every church every weekend? Why hasn't a jollier tune replaced the "Bridal March"? I'll tell you why: it's an international conspiracy of lazy organists! The traditional marches are very easy to play, while Widor's Toccata is decidedly tricky. Which is why, when savvy brides ask for it, they get excuses like "We lost the music behind a radiator in nineteen seventy-four" or "I would be delighted to play it but don't you find it a little… vulgar?" So come on, brides—put your foot down and do your bit for music.

Now where were we?… Oh yes, taste…

Professors Adrian North and David Hargreaves have discovered that we are surprisingly sensitive to the appropriateness of a piece of music to a given situation.11 In fact, appropriateness is as important as the complexity/arousal aspects I was just discussing in shaping our response to music. While we tend to be forgiving of a dull tune if it fits with our idea of what's suitable (as the "Bridal March" demonstrates), we find inappropriate music highly irritating, as shown by our reaction to badly chosen background music in shops and restaurants.

At this point you might think that I'm going to go off the deep end about background music in the same way that I vented my spleen all over the wedding march. But no, it's more complicated than that.

Let me ask you two questions…

1. Do you like background music?

2. Does background music influence your behavior?

Like me, you may well have raised a defiant "No!" in answer to both these questions, and, like me, you are probably wrong. It may be that we are irritated and uninfluenced by inappropriate background music—but cleverly chosen background music is generally preferred to silence, and it affects our behavior to a level that is almost laughable.

Professors North and Hargreaves put music speakers on the top shelf of an end-of-aisle wine display in a supermarket to see if different sorts of music could influence the choices we make.12 The display consisted of four shelves, each of which had a French wine on one side and a German wine on the other. The wines on each shelf were matched for price and sweetness/dryness, so there was a fair competition between the two countries.

Then all they had to do was change the music occasionally and monitor which wines were bought when each type of music was playing.

The results were astonishing.

When they played German music through the speakers, the German wine sold twice as fast as the French stuff.

When they played French music, the French bottles sold five times as fast as the German ones.

This implies that we are as helpless as krill in the path of a blue whale as far as marketing music is concerned. And the effect is subconscious: only one in seven of the wine buyers realized that the music had influenced their choice.

In another wine/music investigation, Charles Areni and David Kim looked at how pop music and classical music affected how much money people spent in a wine cellar.13 This revealed yet another level of gullibility in us poor shoppers. The pop music didn't have any effect on buying patterns, but the classical music obviously made people feel more sophisticated and affluent. They bought the same number of bottles, but they chose the more expensive wine. And I don't mean slightly more expensive. It was over three times the price!

It has even been shown that background music can influence the perceived flavor of wine. In an investigation into this effect, several groups of people were played one of four different types of background music while they were given a free glass of wine. The mood of the music playing in the background was deliberately chosen to be either powerful and heavy, subtle and refined, zingy and refreshing, or mellow and soft. The psychologists running the test didn't, of course, tell anyone that the background music was important; the drinkers just thought they were at a regular wine tasting. The wine tasters were later asked to rate the wine as to how heavy, refined, zingy, or mellow it tasted. The results showed that people tended to match the flavor of the wine with the mood of the music. For example, people listening to powerful, heavy music (Carmina Burana) tended to rate the wine they were sipping as powerful and heavy; zingy, refreshing pop music made the wine taste more zingy and refreshing, and so on. In fact the wine was the same in every case (a cabernet sauvignon), and the wine tasters were barely aware of the background music—they were too busy enjoying their free wine.14

It seems that music can also influence how much you enjoy the wine. At a wine tasting in London the guests were given wines numbered one to five during the course of the session.15 They were asked to comment on the wine in each case and also to nominate their favorite. Over the next hour or so, the music changed gradually from mellow classical (Debussy's "Clair de Lune") to the outright drama of "The Ride of the Valkyries." What the tasters didn't know was that the final wine of the session (wine number five) was the same as wine number one. Once again they matched the mood of the music to the taste of the wine. Wine number one was rated as mellow and soft, but the same wine, presented as number five, with the powerful, heavy music, was rated as… powerful and heavy. Also, wine number one was no one's favorite, whereas number five was the most popular wine of all.*

It's amazing that our perceptions can be influenced this easily, but plenty of other research has confirmed that background music affects us much more strongly than we would like to think.

Another supermarket study found that slow music made people spend over a third more than fast music did.16 The reason for this was that slow music made people walk more slowly, giving them more time to browse and buy. The designer of this study, Ronald Milliman, then went on to look at how music affects our behavior in restaurants, and, sure enough, he found the same kind of result.17

With slow music playing, people spent about an hour over their meal, but with fast music, they wolfed their food down in forty-five minutes. The slow music customers also spent about one and a half times as much on drinks during their meal as the fast music diners. And these results seem to be typical of how we respond to the tempo of background music. The original study was carried out in America in the mid-1980s, but when the experiment was repeated by psychologists in Glasgow fifteen years later, they got precisely the same result.18 Another study showed that slower music even makes us take fewer bites per minute.19

But before all you restaurant owners go dashing out to buy copies of Leonard Cohen's Greatest Hits, don't forget that, although the slow music customers spent more, they also stayed around, clogging up the restaurant for longer. In a crowded, popular restaurant, you might find it more worthwhile to play fast music so you serve more people per day.

Our pals Professors North and Hargreaves have also shown that the type of background music being played influences our behavior.20 This time they played different sorts of music on different days in a university cafeteria and then asked the customers to rate the feel of the place. The customers had no idea that the type of music playing while they filled in their questionnaires was part of the experiment; they may not even have noticed it consciously, but it did have an effect. According to the customer feedback, easy listening music made the cafeteria feel down-market, pop music made it feel fun and upbeat, and classical music made it feel sophisticated.

The changes in music also altered how much the customers were willing to spend in the place. The prices weren't actually changed, but the diners (who had already bought what they wanted) were given a list of fourteen food and drink items and asked to note down how much they would be prepared to pay for each one. If people filled in these questionnaires when no music was playing, they valued the total list of items at £14.30. If easy-listening music was playing, this rose slightly to £14.51. Pop music pushed this up quite a bit to £16.61, and classical music (as usual) made people come over all posh and sophisticated—and raised the perceived value of the list to £17.23. So the difference between silence and classical music was £2.93, which is about 20 percent.

The overall research result in this area is that, on average, the right sort of background music in a shop or restaurant can increase turnover by about 10 percent.21 On the flip side, the wrong sort of music (e.g., rap music in a traditional Italian restaurant) can irritate the customers and make the place feel more down-market, or just wrong. One of the worst things a manager can do is allow the staff to bring their own music in. If the staff are of the same age and background as most of the customers, the situation might work out well for all concerned. What usually happens, though, is that the music is inappropriate for the customers, and to add insult to injury, the staff turn the volume up because they are enjoying it, so your favorite wood-paneled restaurant aimed at the over-fifties acquires the ambiance of a bar aimed at the twenty-three-year-old staff. While I do feel sorry for the staff—they must get driven round the bend by "cozy jazz classics for old geezers to eat to"—they'll just have to console themselves with the fact that they are a lot better-looking than the customers, and won't need to be tucked up in bed with a cup of cocoa by 11:30.

One great thing about your musical taste is that it can always be extended to include new genres. Remember the prototypes I mentioned earlier? The more of them you create in your mind, the more types of music you'll enjoy. You'll have to listen to stuff you don't initially like a few times before the new prototype takes root, but I promise it will be worth it, because you'll be increasing the amount of musical pleasure available to you for the rest of your life.

Before we go much further, perhaps now's the time for a few general comments about this book.


  • "In this book, Powell does for music what Masters and Johnson did for sex."
    Bernie Krause, PhD, author of The Great Animal Orchestra
  • "A buffet of insights and oddities."
    Kirkus Reviews
  • "Powell draws on decades of other people's research, filtered through his own charming sense of humor, to help readers hear music with fresh ears....He delivers a solid case for why, indeed, people love (and need) music."—Publishers Weekly
  • "WHY YOU LOVE MUSIC is highly amusing and informative, and makes for casual reading of a superior kind."—-Philip Marchand, National Post (Canada)

On Sale
May 2, 2017
Page Count
320 pages
Little Brown Spark

John Powell

About the Author

Scientist and musician John Powell holds a PhD in physics from Imperial College (London University) and a Master’s degree in music from the university of Sheffield (UK). He is the author of How Music Works.

Learn more about this author