Sabbatical - Chapter 4

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Chapter 4: Music, personality and spirituality

As well as being tied up with our social identities, our engagement with music and our musical choices can also be a reflection of our personality. Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham show that people with different personality profiles, measured on the Big Five Personality indicator, tend to make different musical choices, and tend to use music for different purposes.[1]  Their research confirmed their hypotheses that neuroticism will be positively correlated with the emotional use of music, and extraversion will be positively related to background use of music, whereas openness and high IQ will both be positively correlated with cognitive music use.[2]

Rentfrow[3] in summarising the work of social psychologists on personality and music taste and use writes that ‘individuals with preferences for sophisticated musical styles, like classical, opera, and jazz, are high in Openness, creativity, imagination, possess liberal values, value artistic expression, and score high on measures of verbal ability. People with preferences for intense styles of music, like heavy metal and punk, are high in Openness, sensation seek-ing, impulsivity, and athletic ability. And people with preferences for contemporary music, like pop, rap, and dance, are high in Extraversion, value social recognition, endorse more gender stereotypes, have more permissive attitudes about sex, and consider themselves physically attractive.’

This raises interesting questions about the place of music in worship and spirituality, given the range of personalities likely to be present in any congregation. If also may mean that the way music is used in church as well as saying something about the social identity of a group, says something about which sorts of personalities are most likely to feel at home. A church that uses background music to accompany actions, like the peace, for example, may be more likely to appeal to extraverts, whereas a church that expects people to listen in silence to music, might be more comfortable for introverts. If sociable people are more likely to use music in the service of social bonding, while introverted people use it for reflection, what are the implications for a congregation of mixed personalities?

I was particularly interested in the categories that Chamorro-Preuzic and Furnham outlined for the major different uses of music in their study: emotional, cognitive (rational music appreciation, or intellectual processing of music) and background.

When people encounter music in worship or in their personal devotional life which of these has priority for them? Even for those who say that music is important to them in worship or in their spirituality, it could be for different reasons: as a regulator of feelings, as a means of intellectual stimulation, or as a background mood setter, or any combination of the three.

For those who plan music in worship and use it in public devotions of any sort, there needs to be a more sophisticated understanding of the varieties of ways people respond to music.

Although they used the Big Five personality indicator as a tool for asking how different people used music, my own impression is that there are other factors than simple personality scores. One of those factors that I believe has a significant impact on the use of music in churches is that trained musicians respond to music differently, regardless of their personality.

They are more likely to use music for cognitive purposes, to analyse the structure, timbre or performance intellectually, simply because that is what they have been trained to do, often from an early age. This doesn’t mean that musicians replace a feeling response with a thinking response. There is actually research that shows that in people who have undergone musical training and practised performing music from an early age, the area of the brain that links the two hemispheres the corpus callous is enlarged, enabling quicker co-ordination within the brain. Although, this is disputed and a gross oversimplification, this could explain why trained musicians are able to integrate a cognitive and an emotional approach to music.

Speaking personally, in pieces of music I have studied, I do find myself thinking things like: ‘here comes the recapitulation, I wonder how they are going to perform this bit’, while still being totally emotionally connected to the music. On the other hand, I remember when I got intellectually excited about musical form when I was at college, I was accused by other members of my family of taking the joy out of music by being too analytical about it.

The implication for the use of music in church is that often the musical choices in church are made by trained musicians, for whom music might ‘work’ in a different way from most people. In Martin Clarke’s piece on ‘And can it be’ [4], he reflects on the way that trained musicians on hymn book committees have constantly tried to encourage people to sing it to a ‘better’ tune than Sagina. (which in itself took a time to get a place in an authorised hymn book) - a tune that reflects the complexity of the words, rather than just allows a ‘big sing’. Thus in the 1933 MHB  Alfred Beer’s ‘Lansdown’ was set as a second tune, and again in Hymns and Psalms Cyril Taylor’s ‘Didsbury’ appears. Neither tune ever caught on! ’Singing the Faith’ did not bother to print an alternative, although even here, to satisfy the reservations of some trained musicians, a footnote says ‘May also be sung to the tune ‘Abingdon’’ (a tune that Eric Routley wrote for those words because Sagina was unsuitable!) Again, in ‘Singing the Faith’ some of the arrangements of worship songs show signs of trained musicians trying to tidy up and elaborate on simple versions of tunes, that were already in the bloodstream of churches that use them, e.g. Paul Leddington Wright’s arrangement of Stuart Townsend’s ‘The Lord’s my shepherd.’

On a local level Sunday by Sunday, there needs to be a recognition that the priorities of the trained musicians may not be the same as those of the rest of the congregation. However, this has the danger of leading to a fear of the trained musician, and a resulting impoverishment of musical standards. Historically, many Methodist churches were places through which people gained or were inspired to gain their musical training, and there were aspirations to high standards. These could lead to tension, when musical priorities overrode those of the spiritual needs of the congregation. But the power of music to enhance worship and lead people into a deeper relationship with God, needs an appropriate balance between musical quality and sensitivity to the needs of the worshippers. Both insensitive use of music, however high quality it is, and poorly chosen and delivered music however sincere it is, can destroy the worship experience for a congregation. The real musical expertise that churches need is for skilled musicians who can enable and encourage congregational participation in the worship, both musically and spiritually, through the choice of music and the way it is led.

However, musical skills and skills in enabling and encouraging others do not always hang together.

I remember being very struck when I read Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Jude the Obscure’ when I was still in the sixth form. Jude, a young man with academic aspirations beyond his social status, is singing in his village church choir. They learn a new piece by a local composer which he finds ‘a strangely emotional composition.’ Musing on the composer who could write such a piece that touched his emotions he thinks: ‘What a man of sympathies he must be! .. He would understand all my difficulties.” and he resolves to visit him. He meets the composer and tells him how beautiful he finds his piece, only for the composer to reply: ‘Yes, there's money in it, if I could only see about getting it published’, and when he realises that Jude is poor, he has no more time for him.

The story made me very sad at the time, as I thought Jude deserved better, and it helped me understand that the emotions expressed in music, either composed or performed, do not necessarily match with those of the composer or the performer in their relationships with others. The ability to deal in beautiful music does not automatically imply an easy personality.

A piece of research quote by Philip Ball [5] in which four different groups of children were given respectively, intensive keyboard lessons, singing lessons, drama lessons and no extra input over a year, showed an increase IQ for this who had the music lessons, but when tested for ‘social behaviour’ the drama group improved but the music groups didn’t! As Ball comments: ‘if music makes you smarter, it doesn’t necessarily make you any easier to get along with.’

When I began to learn more about autism through trying to understand our son Mark, some of this began to make more sense. I learnt that like mathematical skills, technical musical skills are not impaired in those on the autistic spectrum, and I was fascinated to learn that there is a much higher percentage of people on the autism spectrum with absolute pitch, i.e. the ability to recognise the pitch of a note without reference to any other pitches, than in the population at large. This is probably a result of their greater ability to focus in and remember precise details, as part of their ‘analytical cognitive style’.

Mark, whose learning disability and short concentration spans, mean that he cannot really acquire any technical musical skills, is nevertheless able to sing the beginnings of all the ‘leitmotifs’ from Thomas the Tank Engine, attached to the right engine, always in the right key!

This led me to an interest in the way that people with ASC might access music. I know from doing aural tests with a group at university where about a quarter of the cohort had absolute pitch, that those with absolute pitch listen to music in a different way than I do, despite my musical training. Some would claim not to hear a melody, but each individual note. This has led me to wonder whether those with absolute pitch might have more autism traits than those without, and I was interested to see a study[6] which asked that very question. The results showed that individuals with absolute pitch were more likely to be what the study classified as ‘socially eccentric’, and that absolute pitch possessors score significantly higher than individuals without absolute pitch on the autism-spectrum quotient.

It is quite a big leap from that to say that those with the really sharp aural skills needed to be an expert musician are likely to show some autistic traits, which might include social awkwardness, and the study specifically states that the autistic traits that are shown by those with absolute pitch  are more on the imagination and attention shifting sub scales of the quotient than the social and communication subscales, leading to being thought eccentric.

However, through anecdotal experience, a fair sprinkling of musicians, and often church musicians can be prone to social awkwardness as well as eccentricity, in ways that might suggest that they are a little way along the autistic spectrum. The old joke about organists and terrorists comes to mind. [7]

Given that autistic people can be skilled in music, I think there may be a rational explanation for the stereotype of the socially awkward organist. If you are on the autistic spectrum and are skilled at music, and you want to find a way of exercising your skill in a way that takes away the anxieties of eye contact, of engaging with other people, where your interest and ease with machines can be accommodated, and where expression and management of timbre comes not from inside you but at the touch of a button, what instrument would you most likely play?

If you are a singer on the spectrum, with excellent pitch perception, you will be more at home in a church choir with its disciplines and rituals than a light opera group.

It is important the church learns how to use these skills, and it is important that people on the spectrum feel a welcome and are affirmed both in their musicality and their autism in a church community.

However, such people will usually be resistant to change, like the organist I mentioned in Chapter 1, who couldn’t cope with changes in order within a service, and will not necessarily have the empathy to understand people’s emotional states and their musical needs if they are different from theirs.

It is therefore important that the development of music policy in a church is shared. As well as talented musicians, it needs to include those who have a wide view of music’s relationship to the culture and identity both of the congregation and those the congregation are trying to reach. It also needs to be interested in enabling and inspiring others and in music’s role in developing fellowship and a shared spirituality, which might involve making compromises in the musical tastes of the ‘experts’!

As well as seeing the relationship between music and autism in practical terms, I have also begun to wonder whether an understanding of the way autistic people relate to music might be an avenue to explore in finding a way into understanding a possible spirituality for those who are autistic.

If music is an important aid to my spirituality, and if my relationship with music can sometimes almost be a proxy for my relationship with God, opening me out to the possibility of the divine, through a mixture of its emotional power, and its sense of a meaning beyond itself, might music in a different way be a way into an experience of God for people for whom relationship as I understand it is expressed in a very different way?

I began with a hypothesis that given my experience of people with perfect pitch looking at the detail of music rather than the big picture, that those on the spectrum would be more likely to be interested in the cognitive experience of music rather than the emotional one, and that might open ways to a more cognitive understanding of God, rather than the relational understanding of God that stands at the heart of my faith.

However, my reading has not borne out my hypothesis. I have to say this is based on one study, one book about an able autistic person’s spirituality and one piece of writing about music by an able autistic teenager. But while I recognise the totally unscientific nature of the sample, the consistency in the response from the three sources opens out to me a new way of thinking about music, autism and spirituality, the consequences of which I am still trying to fully grasp.

The research[8] found that those with ASC got ‘emotionally affected by listening to music, found it easy to recognize emotions from music, and experienced physiological arousal comparable to that of NT[9] individuals when listening to music in everyday settings’, and that ‘music listening has the same pleasurable and motivational impact on people with ASC as it has on NT individuals.’


This is borne out by the writing on music on her iPod playlist by the ASC teenager, whose language about music might be more analytical than one might expect, but who uses it to point to emotional content: e.g. writing about a Chopin Ballade, she says ‘I can’t articulate why I like it, apart from the technical excellence required to perform it. The contrasts between major and minor are clever because they are a combination of happy and sad and it’s a waltz that makes you want to move.’

Her comment on ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’ from Les Miserables is ‘It has a build up to an awesome moment defined by a  long note and a crescendo. It defines loss for me and I have lost a lot of things and I’m not talking about a pair of socks.’

Finally, ‘All these songs relate to an emotion I don’t always understand. Because the music tells a story I can relate the music to emotions in that I can’t relate to in other situations.’

There is clearly a high cognitive component in this response, and the means of expression is perhaps different from the way an NT teenager might write, but there is also clearly an emotional and a relational component in the listening experience. I wonder if it is going too far to suggest that for at least some on the autistic spectrum an engagement with music offers the possibility of emotional relationship in a way that is denied them because of their condition in their relationships with other people.

Such a hypothesis would need further testing, but while I cannot enter into the emotional world of someone with ASC, I do know that in my teenage years, at a time when I was finding relationships with my peers difficult, an emotional engagement with music became in some ways an alternative way of developing my emotional life. For me, at that time, there was something of a sense of disappointment that the depths and range of emotions I experienced through music I could not find realistic outlets for in my real life personal relationships.

If such an emotional response to music is possible for people who do not express emotion in relationship in ways that society deem to be ‘normal’, could that also be true in terms of people’s relationship with the divine?

I had always thought that Mark’s impairments in imagination, communication and social relationship would make any sense of spirituality that I could relate to impossible for him and those with his condition, given that my own spirituality is built on imagination, communication and relationship.

In the book ‘Spirituality and the Autistic Spectrum’[10] Abe Isanon states that ‘relationship is at the core of the spirituality of autism related conditions.’ When I first read that, I couldn’t understand it. But the insights from the research study and the teenager with ASC on the response of those one the spectrum to music, means that I begin to see what it might mean. In Isanon’s book, he takes as a case study the experiences of Adam, a young adult with ASC, who was very interested and engaged with faith and spirituality, (although he struggles enormously with organised religion.)

For Adam religious experience is an act of compensation, a refuge from emotional turmoil. He interprets emotions he couldn't process as religious feelings, and finds a relationship with God as a substitute for a lack of relationship with others.

This is a very individual thing. His spirituality is expressed through individual subjectivity rather than communal experience. He cannot relate to over-emotive outpourings of certain spiritualities. He calls the charismatic movement a liturgy for ‘touch freaks’!

Isanon writes briefly about the spirituality of a leading spokeswoman for autism, Temple Grandin. the autistic woman who is a professor of animal husbandry. She sees in her work a sense of interconnectedness with the apparent randomness of the universe, and a a sense of God in the interconnectedness of things unravelled by quantum physics.

Part of me wants to ask, what spirituality is it where there is a deep emotional relationship with God and not with other people? How does this relationship with God issue into the world? Is a relationship with the divine that is simply about individual subjective experience really an encounter with the God of Jesus Christ?

But another part of me asks how we would expect a gracious God whose love is for all to interact with someone on the autistic spectrum.

I suspect some people who have a deep relationship with God and find interpersonal relationships with other individuals difficult express their Christian faith through a commitment to ideas and ideals, like social justice or a Christian response to the environment, and the church and the world needs the single minded commitment that such personalities can bring, even if they are sometimes not easy to deal with on a personal level.

Perhaps an understanding of the personality and spiritual possibilities for those on the autistic spectrum can help us to understand why sometimes people’s emotional behaviour with other people is not always consistent with their expressed emotional behaviour in their relationship with God, without necessarily doubting their faith.

It is there that the those who do have empathy and good inter-personal skills need to use them to help include such people in appropriate ways within the Christian community.

Isanon, defines spirituality as the spirit with which we confront reality, and in our challenge to confront the reality of autism with the spirit of Christ, there is much room for spiritual growth, and he quotes Vanier: ‘The weak teach the strong to accept and integrate the weakness and brokenness of their own lives while they often hide behind masks.’

This of course, goes way beyond the manner in which we respond to people with autism, but the thinking about the different ways that those with ASC respond to music and how that might be analogous to how they respond to God, challenges us to build communities of difference, with a sensitivity to different personalities and cultural identities, which might mean careful thought about what is done separately, and what is done together, as in churches that offer worship of different cultural identities. The use of music is a real touchstone in how we do that.



[1]   British Journal of Psychology (2007), 98, 175–185

 Personality and music: Can traits explain how people use music in everyday life?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Adrian Furnham

[2]The terms: neuroticism, extraversion and openness are here used as defined by the Big Five Personality indicator

[3]ibid

[4]Clarke: ibid

[5]Ball ibid Loc 4841

[6]‘Do Musicians with Perfect Pitch have more autism traits than musicians without perfect pitch?’ Anders Dohn, Eduardo A. Garza-Villarreal, Pamela Heaton, Peter Vuus: PLOS one 2012

[7]‘What is the difference between an organist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.’

[8]‘Intact brain processing of musical emotions in autism spectrum disorder’ Line Gebauer, Joshua Skewes, Gitte Westphael, Pamela Heaton and Peter Vuust. Front Neurosci. 2014

[9]NT abbreviation of NeuroTypical, i.e. not with ASC, Autistic Spectrum Condition

[10]‘Spirituality and the Autistic Spectrum’ - Abe Isanon (Jessica Kingsley 2001)

Sabbatical - Chapter 4