Songs of romance: Our favorite music reveals how we act in relationships

TORONTO, Ontario — Drake or DMX? The Beatles or Metallica? Your favorite songs and musicians provide a sneak peek into your attachment style and typical relationship behaviors, according to researchers from the University of Toronto.

“I’m interested in the role music plays in people’s lives. Since humans started making music tens of thousands of years ago, songs across cultures have always focused on relationships — getting into one, maintaining one or breaking up — so I wondered, do people listen to music that mirrors their experiences in relationships?” says Ravin Alaei, who graduated with a PhD from the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts & Science in 2019, in a media release.

Researchers report that individual attachment styles often correspond with the lyrics of one’s favorite songs. In simpler terms, people tend to turn to music that describes how they’re feeling about their relationships – for better or worse.

“Lyrics matter, so pay attention to them,” says Alaei, who is also a physician. “The lyrics of your favorite songs about relationships may help validate your thoughts and feelings but may also reveal things about your experiences of relationships that you might not have realized — something that you’re going through repeatedly, that you keep coming up against.”

There are 4 main categories of relationship attachment styles

Anxiously attached individuals are known to habitually worry about rejection, and usually seek constant reassurance throughout their relationships.

Avoidantly attached people, on the other hand, tend to be much more guarded, hiding their emotions and avoiding intimacy in favor of independence.

Those with a mixed attachment style usually display confused expectations, fluctuating between clingy and cold.

Finally, secure people generally have optimistic outlooks on relationships, are open communicators, and trust their partners.

“We asked about 570 people to tell us their favorite songs, and then coded the nearly 7,000 songs for the attachment style that their lyrics expressed. In turn, we consistently found that avoidantly attached people prefer music with avoidant lyrics,” Alaei explains. “I expected to see a clear relationship between anxiously attached people and anxious songs because they are the most emotional, but surprisingly, this was the most tenuous result.”

Study authors explain this strong avoidant connection often shows itself not only on an individual level, but also on a societal level. During a second study, researchers coded over 800 Billboard number one hits released between 1946 and 2015. More specifically, they analyzed each song for an attachment theme. Interestingly, hit songs and lyrics appear to have become more avoidant and less secure over time.

“Popular music lyrics are running parallel to sociological trends of social disconnection — people valuing independence over reliance on others, and feeling more isolated,” Alaei adds.

Are these tunes helping us recognize unhealthy behaviors – or reinforcing them?

Alaei says answering this question is the next step in the research.

Singer Adele’s discography is used as an example by researchers. Study authors say her music, which was quite popular among the participants, leans toward anxiously attached themes. More specifically, the song “Someone Like You” appeared on many playlists. That song includes the following lyrics: “I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited… But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it… I had hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded… That for me it isn’t over.”

So, let’s say an anxiously attached person listens to that Adele song on repeat one afternoon. Will that do more harm than good to their real-life relationship? According to Alaei, that hinges on one’s self-awareness of their own attachment style.

“As an anxious person, you should recognize that you’re vulnerable to a negative feedback loop, and your emotions snowballing,” the researcher says. “Music can be a very powerful exacerbator of that because it can stimulate deep emotions and memories, ultimately reinforcing your worries.”

On the other end of the attachment spectrum we have The Weeknd’s “Heartless.” This song features the following lyrics: “Tryna be a better man but I’m heartless… Never be a wedding plan for the heartless… Low life for life ’cause I’m heartless.” This is a perfect example of an avoidant song, Alaei explains.

“Listen to the song a few times to help you process what you’re going through and express your thoughts and feelings. You can decide whether listening to songs that reflect your experiences back at you is either helping you or reinforcing destructive behaviors for yourself. At some point, you may find it more productive to listen to music that provides a sense of security,” the study author suggests.

One older tune that proved popular among participants was Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” That song’s lyrics read: “Then put your little hand in mine… There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb.”

“It’s pretty much a manual on how to be securely attached,” Alaei concludes.

Here is a full breakdown of the songs studied by researchers, and each tune’s assigned attachment style:

Avoidant songs:

  • Beyoncé, “Irreplaceable”
  • Chris Brown, “Say Goodbye”
  • N’Sync, “Bye Bye Bye”
  • Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean”
  • TLC, “Scrubs”
  • Rihanna, “Take a Bow”
  • The Weeknd, “The Hills; Heartless”

Anxious songs:

  • Adele, “Someone Like You”
  • The Police, “Every Breath You Take”
  • Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball”
  • Adele, “Hello”
  • U2, “One”
  • Seether, “Broken”
  • No Doubt, “Don’t Speak”
  • Bruno Mars, “When I Was Your Man”
  • Drake, “Hotline Bling”

Secure songs:

  • Sonny & Cher, “I Got You Babe”
  • Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You”
  • The Beatles, “Love Me Do”
  • Ed Sheeran, “Thinking Out Loud”
  • Plain White Ts, “I Love You”
  • John Legend, “All of Me”
  • Michael Bublé, “Haven’t Met You Yet”
  • Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
  • Bryan Adams, “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You”
  • Etta James, “At Last”
  • Justin Bieber, “Holy”

Anxious-Avoidant (mixed) songs:

  • Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
  • Gotye, “Somebody that I Used to Know”
  • Taylor Swift, “Bad Blood”
  • Sam Smith, “I’m Not the Only One”
  • Ne Yo, “So Sick”
  • Bonnie Raitt, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”
  • Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”
  • Rihanna ft. Drake, “Work”
  • Eminem ft. Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie”

The study is published in the journal Personal Relationships.

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