Music Taste and the Variability of Personality

I probably go to a third of the concerts I attend by myself.

I don’t consider myself to be a music snob, although I suppose I might be. I’ve just found that oftentimes, it’s way too annoying to find people to go to concerts with.

Going with just one person can be uncomfortably intimate because there’s so much pre- and post- banter at a show. So if you only have musical overlap with say, your lower tier friends, your experience has a high chance to be awkward. I would prefer to silently hunt for memes on my phone than feign more than 5 minutes of interest in someone I only see a few times a year.

But the real reason it’s so hard to find people to go to concerts with is that virtually all my friends have different music tastes.

Many of my best friends, who across almost all other visible dimensions I am disturbingly aligned with, tend to have music tastes which are either alien or… awful to me. People I would trust with my life, but not with an aux cord.

That’s why when Spotify Wrapped comes out at the end of each year, I’m always astounded by the disparity in what different people listen to. It’s like a mini snapshot into the true personalities of my friends.

I generally listen to groovy electronic music, though my favorite artist, Beach House is indie dream pop. I think of it as Beach House being my supportive best friend, while the other artists are like my fun and cool friends.

The fact is that you can’t hide from the omniscient eyes of Spotify Wrapped.

There are few tests more honest than a person’s listening habits captured over the course of a year. I mean, it is super easy to pose for a cool picture here and there and project a certain kind of personality. But listening to music is too involved of a consumer experience for you to deceive Spotify Wrapped.

Music for Everyone

There is such a large volume of music being pumped out and piped through such frictionless channels that people can easily seek out whatever particular flavor corresponds to their taste.

Unlike many other consumer decisions, music listening is an area where the different options all cost the same, where decisions are entirely personal instead of subjected to economics. We live in a glorious, democratic era of music consumption.

Streaming turned around the direction of the music industry! Gone are the days of downloading albums on Limewire and then finding out that each song is actually Crank that Soulja Boy

In trying to determine the true diversity of music listening, to see just how divergent people’s choices are, I wanted to do a quick market sizing on what people listen to. I thought it would make sense to compare the world’s music library to how much music a typical person listens to.

  • The number of songs in the world
    • Spotify states that there are 50+ million songs on its platform. Jay-Z’s discography just got re-added, so I’ll update that number and go with 50.00005+ million songs.
    • We need to filter this number down, because there’s a ton of music no one listens to. When evaluating the world of legitimately consumed music, I think we can skinny it down to 5 million songs, since a great deal of it is warmly boiled trash, and because 99% of all streaming comes from only 10% of songs.
  • How much music a typical person listens to
    • Next, we can take a look at how much music a typical person listens to in order to see what a typical music taste might span. It is estimated that Americans listen to roughly 151 minutes of music per day (which is 1,050 minutes or 18 hours per week).
    • If we then assume that the average song length is 3.5 minutes, we arrive at roughly 350 songs per week.
    • To take the most aggressive, indie position we possibly can and posit that each consumer listens to 350 unique songs per week (i.e. never plays the same song twice), we get to 18k different songs per year.
    • (18k songs listened to) / (5 million songs in rotation) gets you to 0.36%. The point is that there simply isn’t enough time or capacity to listen to what everyone else listens to.

Even if you devote your sole purpose in life to listening to new music and exploring new artists, you will never come close to covering all of the popular genres and trends that are out there. You’ll never be able to get all of your friends’ music tastes and frankly, you probably won’t want to.

The Variability of Personality

To me, music is the best analog for the sheer diversity of human personality that exists.

The vastly different music tastes of people – even the disparity in just one person’s listening habits – are a reminder of how different we all are and how variable we can all be.

We are all the product of thousands of tiny decisions, our experience shaped by our own world-view and personal sense of judgement. What may outwardly appear as simple or binary choices in the lives of others are more likely to be uniquely calculated and debated. We often forget about the complexity and inconsistency that everyone deals with on a daily basis.

I think there is a danger in developing a sense of fixed identity because the reality is that we are all variable. When we cling onto linear descriptors or oversimplified narratives, we don’t do ourselves justice and we become more easily hurt when those static identities are challenged.

I don’t believe there is a personality test that is universally commended by social scientists, but I’ve always found the Myers-Briggs test, with its 16 personalities, to be a reasonably fun and good sorting hat. It has four dimensions, each with two options (Introversion / Extroversion; iNtuitive / Sensing; Thinking / Feeling; Perceiving / Judgmental). The test is certainly instructive at a high level – I am an ENTJ and I found that an overwhelming amount of finance guys were either ENTJ (more business school-y) or INTJ (more hedge-fundy) – but the test lacks nuance. All personality archetypes do.

Labels dramatically oversimplify things. They ignore the fluidity of people and disregards the tendency for people to change over time. We don’t just listen to EDM, we listen to many different genres of electronic music and nurture a healthy and totally understandable weakness for ABBA.

Labels can help us make reasonable associations, but they can mislead us about how we feel or how we think we should feel.

Other People Aren’t You

It’s incredibly rare and special to find someone who loves the exact combination of artists and genres that you do.

The funny part is, from my experience, when you do find that musical neighbor, they’re going to be radically different from you across other dimensions of personality.

I think this is why recommendations from others, ranging from career to relationship to whether a meme is funny or not, don’t always make sense. It’s why finding a suitable mentor can feel impossible. Or why two extremely famous axioms can directly contradict one another. Different approaches and mindsets are going to work for different people.

There are certainly frameworks and rules of thumb that can lead to conventional success, like how everyone will succumb to the magnetic allure of Mr. Brightside, but finding the specialized road that best suits you is going to take a lot of effort and time.

It took you a long time to develop your music taste. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it’ll take you much longer to figure out the more important things.

When you listen to a personally curated playlist, with all its embarrassing deep cuts from the various stages of your life, be reminded of how many different ingredients and choices there are that compose you. There might not be anyone else on the planet with your exact taste.

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