What do your musical choices say about who you really are — and how you relate to others?
More than many of us might have guessed, according to a new study from the University of Toronto, in which researchers in the psychology department analyzed over 7,000 songs and discovered an association between individual song preferences and our “attachment styles.”
The idea of an “attachment style” derives from a theory of human relationships developed by British psychologist John Bowlby. It posits that attachments formed in early childhood have a major impact on how we relate to others throughout our lives.
“In the 80s or so, people started realizing that the patterns infants had with their parents were, at the very least, analogues for the way that adults live their lives,” explained Geoff MacDonald, acting chair and professor in the department of psychology at U of T. “For example, if when kids are scared they go look for their parents; as adults, if they got scared they’d often call their romantic partner.”
These aren’t so much personality traits as they are fairly predictable patterns of how people manage intimacy and relationships.
Attachment theory is divided into four main “styles”: secure, anxious, avoidant-dismissive and avoidant-fearful. This taxonomy of styles has been mapped out for some time. What nobody ever thought to look at was what type of music people from the four categories liked to listen to.
Probably because it isn’t really the first question that comes to mind, right? Fortunately, Dr. Ravin Alaei, resident physician and PhD from the department of psychology at U of T, had a hunch it was a question that could shed a lot of light on interpersonal relationships.
“I was seeing more and more research coming out about how people really put a lot of importance on music in their daily life when it came to making friendships and bonding with others,” recalled Alaei, lead author of the study. “And, for many, music can be a way of representing their identity.”
Alaei explained that it’s not only individuals who use music to express their identities. Countries have national anthems. Couples have special songs that help define their relationships. Even some corporations have theme songs, such as “Hail to the IBM.” True story.
Despite this, there was a lack of research looking at the relationship between lyrics and attachment styles, even though so many songs are about either breaking up or falling in love.
What Alaei and his fellow researchers discovered was that, indeed, people tend to like songs that match their attachment style. That may not sound so surprising but, through the analysis of thousands of songs over several decades, another pattern emerged: our music has changed.
“If you go to the music from the ’50s or ’60s, it’s quite easy to find lyrics that match the secure style of attachment,” said Alaei, noting that it’s much harder to find music that fits into that category now.
Alaei lists some examples of popular music that reflect a “secure attachment” over the decades, which includes songs from the 1960s, such as “At Last” by Etta James, “I Got You Babe” by Sonny & Cher, the Beatles classic ” Love Me Do” and “Wouldn’t it be Nice” by the Beach Boys. There are more recent songs, too, like Whitney Houston’s 1999 hit “I Will Always Love You” and Michael Bublé’s “Haven’t Met You Yet,” although it’s worth pointing out that Houston’s song was written by Dolly Parton in the early 1970s and Bublé’s whole brand is pretty retro.
Official audio for “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton
When it comes to modern songs with “secure” lyrics, John Legend’s “All of Me,” Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” and Justin Bieber’s “Holy” are a few of the rare examples.
And if you like any (or all) of these songs and turn to them for comfort, you may well have a secure attachment style.
Increasingly, though, the music that’s making it to the top of the charts expresses an “avoidant” attachment style.
“I think a nice popular artist to represent avoidance is The Weeknd, at least with his early work,” said Alaei. “And a good song to show an example of avoidance would be ‘Heartless’ — I mean, it’s kind of right there in the title.”
Other contemporary songs include “Say Goodbye” by Chris Brown, Rihanna’s “Take a Bow”; and “Irreplaceable,” Beyoncé’s 2006 hit that’s considered one of the most successful songs of that decade.
Beyoncé’s official video for ‘Irreplaceable’. Click to listen to Beyoncé on Spotify: http://smarturl.it/BeyonceSpot?IQid=B…
“Our data is showing that on a cultural or group level, our society is becoming more detached, more individualistic and more avoidant,” he added. “And the music is starting to reflect that.”
Why our music is changing is a bigger question, one that’s next to impossible to answer.
“It could be that people are experiencing more avoidance in their daily lives, thanks to things like social media and online work, so that music is becoming more popular, but there are probably a lot of reasons for it,” said Alaei. “But it’s a really interesting question.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION