Have you got the X Factor? Psychologists find that you may be musical and not even know it

Oct 28, 2015

Source: University of Cambridge

The old adage says practice makes perfect, but a new study from the University of Cambridge has shown that personality also plays a key role in musical ability, even for those who do not play an instrument.

In a study published this week in the Journal of Research in Personality, a team of psychologists identified that the personality trait ‘Openness’ predicts musical ability and sophistication. People who score highly on Openness are imaginative, have a wide range of interests, and are open to new ways of thinking and changes in their environment.

Previous convention has held that the amount you practice is the key to success. This idea received widespread attention earlier this decade when writer Malcolm Gladwell argued that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any domain, whether it is sports, music, art, or chess. But scientists are now discovering that there may be other factors involved as well.

Psychologists from the University of Cambridge and Goldsmiths University teamed with the BBC to recruit over 7,000 volunteers, in what is the largest study to date on personality and musical expertise. The team led by doctoral researcher David Greenberg, tested the participants on various musical abilities including melodic memory and rhythm perception. Performance on these tests was then linked to their scores on the Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).

They found that aside from musical experience, the next best predictor of musical ability was personality, and specifically, Openness. While people who are high on Openness are open to new ways of thinking, people who score low on Openness (or who are ‘Closed’) are more set in their ways, prefer routine and the familiar, and tend to have more conventional values. For example, someone high on Openness will likely take a vacation to a new destination each year, whereas someone low on Openness is likely to revisit the same location year after year.

In addition to Openness, the researchers also found that Extraversion was linked to higher self-reported singing abilities.


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6 comments on “Have you got the X Factor? Psychologists find that you may be musical and not even know it

  • Thanks bonnie; apparently I’ve got cloth ears!

    No, not really; it said I prefer “sophisticated” music; which is surprising, since there isn’t any Duke Ellington, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, Shostakovich, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Nat Cole, Charlie Parker, Artur Rubinstein, Jimmy Hendrix, Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonious Monk or Bartok.

    Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” would have been nice too.



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  • Please bear with me mods, I’m going off piste a tad.

    Google ’em bonnie; Nat “King” Cole too, he was a brilliant pianoist; he got sacked from being a resident piano player in a club because he started singing!

    Olgun posted a video of Ray Charles, in which he talks to Clint Eastwood about those pianoists, and the threads lead to all sorts of great stuff; go get an earful!



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  • google ’em

    Will do. Good back story about Nat. His rendition of ‘The Christmas Song’ is a regular on holiday rotation. Love Natalie’s “duet” ‘Unforgettable‘.



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  • @OP link – Performance on these tests was then linked to their scores on the Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).

    I probably personally miss out on the Neuroticism, but would agree that you need the other attributes – over and above technical musical ability, to perform to an audience.

    However my style is somewhat restricted at the moment, and confined to occasional appearances doing vocals while others provide backing, as for some weeks now I have had a wrist injury which prevents me playing a guitar.



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