Personality Studies Show the Difference Between People Who Play Music and Everyone Else

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

What drives people to pour hours into making perfectly timed plinking noises with simple brass and stringed instruments? 

There's no easy answer. For decades, researchers have studied what drives certain individuals to spend so much time making and thinking about music. What they've found is nothing short of incredible: The minds of musicians and non-musicians are not the same.


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Musicians share a number of personality traits that guide them through the difficult work of translating human experiences into a series of otherwise meaningless melodies. Here are some of the ways they are different from everyone else:

They are more open, conscientious and agreeable. A 2004 study from the University of Melbourne subjected musicians to a battery of personality tests. They found that instrumental musicians score significantly higher than non-musicians on the openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness factors of the Big Five personality measures.

A 2012 study out of the University of Arts in Serbia uncovered similar findings. Musicians' openness to experience is linked to "independency in thinking, active imagination, aesthetic sensibility, inner receptivity, preference of diversity, intellectual curiosity and divergent thinking," the authors write. This is common to all creative types, but is absolutely vital in helping young musicians establish their expressive scope and creative faculties. The authors recommend educators seek out students that demonstrate this openness when looking to fill seats in higher education.

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Musicians are more stable and agreeable than even other artists. This may have a lot to do with the fact that live musical performances are a distinct give-and-take conversation with the audience. 

A 2010 study found that visual artists and musicians demonstrated greater openness to experience than students studying psychology. However, that comes with a higher degree of neuroticism in visual artists. Musicians scored far higher on the scales of extraversion and agreeableness, though several studies show the opposite — that musicians are more accurately characterized as "bold introverts."

However, this may have a lot to do with the choice of instrument. Anthony Kemp, in a groundbreaking book-length study on musicians' personalities, found strings frequently attract "the quieter, more introverted and studious child," whereas brass and singing appeal to more "socially outgoing and extroverted" types. But these are only variations on a theme, and all musicians can boast some pretty incredible cognitive and personal benefits because they decide to follow through with their practicing. 


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No matter the instrument, learning music changes the brain. Studies from every corner of the globe, looking into every instrument and age group, agree that learning music can have a profound effect on the way the mind develops.

Learning can improve verbal and reading abilities, spatio-temporal reasoning, the ability to think creatively and even IQ. The University of Vermont College of Medicine recently found that learning piano as a kid can have major effects on emotional and behavioral maturation, imparting important skills for the future, such as anxiety management and emotional control.

These benefits are more or less exclusive to music. A study presented at the German SocioEconomic Panel Study in 2013 followed several groups of children's cognitive development and found that music training "improves cognitive and noncognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theater or dance." 

Apologies to all those kids who chose to the wrong after-school activity.

Music attracts a certain kind of person — one who's agreeable, conscientious and open to new experiences — and it in turn nurtures those same attributes. It helps make its practitioners more conscientious, more creative and more open to new knowledge and new experiences. 

Despite all the bullshit they put up with regarding pathetic royalty payments, creative compromises and fake fans, musicians can rest easy knowing they've honed beautiful personalities and minds.

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Tom Barnes

Tom Barnes is a senior staff writer at Mic focused on music, activism and the intersection between the two. He's based in New York and can be reached at tom@mic.com.

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