“You are what you listen to” or so says a growing number of researchers who are seeking to prove that what we listen to reflects us psychologically and developmentally. In fact, there are numerous studies that link musical taste to personality and more research is being done to bring this hypothesis into valid, working theory. Our musical tastes say a lot about who we are and more importantly, signal which stage of development we are in and this is big news for researchers and music lovers alike.
An expanding body of social science research substantiates the contention that our musical preferences reflect not simply our musical tastes, but also signal the stage of psychosocial development at which we find ourselves in any given moment (Schwartz & Fouts, 206). Furthermore, research confirms that in general, our musical tastes hint at the salient aspects of our personality and provide insight into the nature of our character formation (Schwartz & Fouts 206). As Schwartz and Fouts reported in their study about the relationship between adolescents’ musical preferences and their developmental characteristics, those individuals who preferred only one type of music, whether “heavy" or “light," tended to demonstrate more developmental difficulties than individuals whose ranges of musical taste was more eclectic and flexible (210). By evaluating our own music preferences across our life spans, we can begin to develop valuable insights into our own character and development. Far from being background noise in our lives, music says a great deal about the essence of who we are. Using Kolb’s schema of life learning and the insights provided by other developmental theorists, particularly the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, I will examine my own development through the lens of my musical preferences as they have evolved over the course of time.
“Tell me what you listen to, and I’ll tell you who you are," wrote Olsson (8). Increasingly, researchers are proving that music is a window into the soul and the psyche. Contemporary music, which is typically comprised of both a tune and lyrics, attracts either our interest and engagement or stimulates a reaction of rejection not only because of stylistic affinities and cues, but also because of profound psychological issues. Oftentimes, the listener is not even consciously aware of the ways in which music reflects and reacts to our complex psychological states at any given moment in our developmental process. It is, in short, and especially for this writer, something that becomes clear only at moments when the act of listening becomes something that can only be described as holy or sacred as the body and soul communicate to one another via sound.
In fact, although far less research has been conducted on the subject of what our avoidance of certain musical genres indicates about our personality or our development than studies about the music to which we are attracted, I would propose that the music that repulses us or which we avoid is a form of what Kristeva described as the phenomenon of abjection (1). Kristeva, a psychoanalyst, described abjection as the reaction formation that individuals develop as a defensive strategy for coping with the aspects of themselves which they abhor and fear (1). Kristeva described abjection vividly in this excerpt from Powers of Horror: “[Abjection is a] violent, dark revolt of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable" (1). Abjection eventually produces rejection, condemnation, defensiveness; in short, the feeling effectively projects one’s anxieties about the self onto another individual or object. It is important to point out, however, that the psychological mechanisms of this phenomenon are typically entirely unconscious to the person who is experiencing them.
Using the insights of Kristeva’s theory of abjection, which are further complemented and elucidated by other psychoanalytic theories about defense mechanisms, we can analyze the significance of the types of songs that we avoid just as meaningfully and productively as we can evaluate what our preferences indicate about our personalities. My own dislike of rap and hip-hop, when considered within the framework of this theoretical schema, become more than mere stylistic dislikes; instead, they become indicators of my own anxieties. By examining these dislikes more carefully, I can engage in the kind of life learning that is implied by Kolb’s model of learning styles and learning skills. This does not mean that I will—or even should—develop a taste for the musical genres and styles I currently dislike. However, the awareness of how musical likes and dislikes signal to psychological issues offers interesting food for thought and may serve as an indicator of areas in which I need to continue developing.