What does listening to a certain artist repeatedly teach us about navigating our relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners? It doesn't matter if Adele or The Weeknd are on your go-to playlist; the songs can reveal a lot about you. It all has to do with attachment styles, or the normal ways that people act, think and feel in relationships.
"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.
Alaei and professors Geoff Macdonald and Nicholas Rule from the Department of Psychology discovered that people's unique attachment styles correspond with the lyrics of their favourite songs in a recent study that was published in the journal Personal Relationships. In other words, for better or worse, we frequently listen to songs that express the emotions we are experiencing in a relationship.
"Lyrics matter, so pay attention to them," says Alaei, who is also a physician who earned his MD at McMaster University. "The lyrics of your favourite 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."
Let's first review attachment styles, which can be loosely divided into four groups, according to Alaei. People who have anxiously attached fear rejection and frequently seek assurance regarding their connections.
Conversely, avoidantly attached people shut down their emotions and connection in favour of independence as a way of coping with their unfavourable expectations of relationships. Mixed attachment style individuals have conflicting expectations and alternate between being chilly and attached. Last but not least, those who are secure view relationships positively, communicate honestly and have faith in their partners.
"We asked about 570 people to tell us their favourite 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," says Alaei. "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."
This strong connection between avoidance and individuals and society is evident on both levels. In a second study, the researchers coded over 800 number-one hits from the Billboard charts from 1946 to 2015 for their attachment themes. They discovered that over time, the lyrics have grown less secure and more avoidant.
"Popular music lyrics are running parallel to sociological trends of social disconnection -- people valuing independence over reliance on others and feeling more isolated," says Alaei.
If we're listening to music that reflects our relationships back at us, is that helping or hindering our relationship skills? Alaei says this is the next step in the research.
Take Adele's discography for example, which Alaei says tips the scale towards anxiously attached themes and was popular among participants. "Someone Like You" appeared on many playlists, with the refrain: "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."
If someone is an anxiously attached person, will listening to "Someone Like You" on repeat cause more harm than good? According to Alaei, it all starts with self-awareness of your own attachment style.
"As an anxious person, you should recognize that you're vulnerable to a negative feedback loop, and your emotions snowballing," says Alaei. "Music can be a very powerful exacerbator of that because it can stimulate deep emotions and memories, ultimately reinforcing your worries."
Adele fans may be having very different relationship experiences compared to those listening to The Weeknd's "Heartless." With lyrics like "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," it's a prime example of an avoidant song, says Alaei.
His advice: "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 behaviours for yourself. At some point, you may find it more productive to listen to music that provides a sense of security."
A popular throwback among participants was Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe": "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," says Alaei. -ANI