Saturday, August 5, 2023

You Call That Intense?

As I was doing my due diligence, going through all of the fresh Blaugust posts popping up like mushrooms after summer rain in my blog roll yesterday, I came across MDi of the M Disk Playlist. From there I inevitably found my way to his YouTube channel and from there I ended up here, taking yet another of those psych profile tests. 

I started to watch MDi take it but as I was watching I realised I wanted to take it too so I had to stop. Part of the premise is you listen to snatches of music unfamiliar to you, which is obviously not going to work if you just watched a video of someone else listening to all of them.

The test is hosted, created and administered by Musical Universe, which began as "an academic pursuit" at my old alma mater, Cambridge University. (British people do not say "alma mater", by the way, or I never heard anyone say it, but if we have a similar expression I never heard that, either, so alma mater will have to do.)

Musical Universe is now a start-up dealing in something called "virtual music therapy" with a focus on "telehealth, neuropsychiatric screening and wellness", none of which I intend to address here in any way whatsoever. I'm just interested in how the test does on telling me what kind of  music I like. 

Spoiler: not very well, at least from my subjective point of view. Others may disagree.

It's called the Personality and Music Test, and it claims to "show how your personality type links to your music preferences". I was interested in finding out my preferences; how they linked to my personality type, not so much. 

Having completed the thing I'm not sure I'm all that much wiser about either but then I got so hung up on why it didn't even seem to be able to tell me what I liked with any accuracy I never really got around to considering whether what it said about my personality seemed accurate, let alone how the two connected.

The test consists of thirty-five questions and took me about a quarter of an hour. I also took what appears to be the original, academic version, still available here. That one is much longer. It took me the best part of forty-five minutes, including nearly nine minutes listening to a chunk of Debussy, which is nine minutes of my life I'm never getting back.

The results of both tests were... surprising. Surprising in the sense that I found them largely meaningless, something I certainly wan't expecting given the build-up. If the tests can't accurately tabulate the kinds of music I like and dislike then there's not much point trying to correlate the results with anything else.

Normally, when we all post about these kinds of tests, we have a nice, neat pie chart or infographic to display to show how we did. I don't have anything like that. Instead I have a bunch of screenshots of textual explanations of the categories and a few tables of numbers.

The presentation could certainly use some work. The   commercial, start-up version of the test is arguably the worse of the two, given the need to appeal to more than an academic audience. The academic one is... well, it's pretty much identical. They don't seem to have gussied it up at all for the general public. Maybe that's intended to add gravitas.

It's not the presentation that's the real problem. Nor is it the extensive and detailed personality testing, for which you have to answer a very great many questions indeed, especially on the academic version. All of that is pretty much par for the course whan it comes to these online tests.

No, where I have some very real issues with the process is in the music clips you're asked to listen to and the ratings you're required to give them. The audio part of the test consists of twenty-five, fifteen-second clips from various songs culled from YouTube. They're supposed to be obscure enough that you won't recognize any of them, which apparently would bias the results.

You listen to each piece then rate it according to the scale above. Simple enough but problematic for me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, almost without exception, the clips are unremarkable, bland and ordinary. Maybe fifteen seconds just isn't long enough or maybe they simply picked poor examples of the various styles. I guess insisting on songs no-one in the world is ever likely to have heard before is likely to point towards mediocrity.

Secondly, four of the nine grading options are what I would call extremes. I hardly ever like or dislike any music "Extremely" or "Very Much". Most music of all types has something interesting or enjoyable to offer but very little has boatloads of either. Again, if you're going to factor out all of the acknowledged great music from the start because too many people will recognize it, you're going to trend towards the bland and if you then ask people to grade your bland selections you're going to bias for bland scores across the board.

And that's exactly what happened. I listened to all twenty-five samples and my reaction to almost every one of them was "Meh". Most of my responses were either "Slightly" one way or the other with a few straying into "Moderately". There was little chance of anything rating "Very" or "Extremely".

I did the whole test on the commercial version first before I knew that's how it would be and my results were... bland. Everything was either "Low" or "Average". I didn't really like anything, I didn't really hate anything. The only category I rated "High" on was Contemporary and that's because those were the only clips that sounded like they had any energy at all. Everything else was so... flat. 

Even allowing for all of that, the results from that first version of the test seemed uninformative. "Average" occupies fifty per cent of the range. Given the grading system asks you to choose from nine variations that seems lacking in granularity.

It may well be the way it has to be for statisitical analysis but it really doesn't cut it for a popular test. I guess that's fair. This is not meant to be a popular test. It's supposed to be more serious than that. Which is a pity because I was hoping for something a lot fluffier and more fun.

Because I'd found the regular version unsatisfying, I went on to do the full, academic version afterwards and even though I found it infuriatingly long-winded, I found the results both more enlightening and more entertaining. Instead of a verbal description of your level of engagement with each musical style, you get a numerical score, which oddly makes the whole thing feel more, not less, accessible. 

There's also a much more detailed explanation of the methodology and how the scores are calculated, which I found quite helpful in understanding both what they indicated and how they applied to what I would consider to be my tastes.

With this extra information, I was able to pinpoint what seems to me to be a fundemental flaw in the methodology. 

I imagine anyone who's bothered to read, let alone listen to, my many music posts here would expect that I'd score fairly highly on the "Intense" preference. I have written entire posts here on punk and power pop. I've mentioned how my introduction to popular music came with an adolescent infatuation with heavy metal music. I occasionally refer to myself as an ex-punk. I was in a fricken' punk band ffs. Even my current obsession with hyperpop and various glitchy soundcloud subgenres seems to me to feed directly into a preference for intensity in music.

So why do I score lowest on intensity, even after I heavily adjusted the way I responded to the same clips when I did the academic test so as to rate them relatively rather than absolutely, as I had in the commercial version? Well, I'll tell you why...

It's because I've heard and enjoyed far too much "intense" music to react with anything other than irritation at being expected to give the time of day to examples as uninmpressive as the ones in the  test. The Spazzys or Rammstein they are not! 

I didn't rate them all "Dislike Moderately" because I moderately dislike loud, fast, abrasive music. I love loud, fast abrasive music! I rated them that way because they were poor examples of the style. Mostly, they weren't loud, fast or abrasive enough

Also they weren't very good. I disliked them on critical grounds, if you will, not aesthetic.

I suspect that's also why I scored highest on "Unpretentious" and "Contemporary". The unpretentious songs were vaguely country or rockabilly, two genres about which I know very little and in which I am easily pleased. They also both famously appeal to people out for a good time and a few beers. Unpretentious sums those styles up well but it also implies a low bar. It's easy to sound just about okay with a slap bass and a chorus everyone can sing along with so the clips in that style have an inbuilt advantage.

As for contemporary, it may be the area where I make the most effort to keep up these days but I'm barely running to stand still. I don't know enough not to be too easily impressed. The supposedly contemporary clips probably sound as mediocre to people who know what they're listening to in that area as the intense ones did to me.

It seems to me that the more you know about the five styles represented in the test, the less likely you are to give these specific examples high marks. You're more likely to give them punishingly low marks instead, precisely because they're disappointing examples of your favorite kinds of music.

It seems like a decent way of assessing a general response, which can then be correlated with the emotional index, but it's going to stumble every time it comes up against someone who has a genuine ear for or strong affiliation with any of the styles.

With that caveat in mind, I'd recommend either test as an interesting experiment. I preferred the longer one although I wish I'd known just how long it was going to take before I took it. Then again, I did do all five sections. You can just do the "Musical Taste" part on its own if you prefer and that's the same length as the commercial test. Actually, it's the same test only with different grades.

I don't regret doing the tests but I do wish either of them had been as much fun as I was anticipating. If anyone knows of anything similar that's a bit more... shall we say ... entertaining, I'd be interested to hear about it.


  1. Test may not work in Firefox, which doesn't surprise me, since every developer I know spends 99% of their time in Chrome and seems surprised anybody uses something else. Also, they should have a big red warning to not press the right arrow button when you get your results because it will immediately disappear them.

    I had my usual problem with this test in that I found it difficult to mark anything outside of the moderate range at either end of the scale. I ended up with a 94% in Sophisticated and 79% in intense, which I am sure means something.

    The personality side was odd, as it was clearly a continuum but they focused on one end, so if you were a lower score, it was essentially a description of what you're not. I am not sure I came out of it with much insight, but then again, I hit that button at the end and lost all my results after my first read through, so I could have missed something.

    1. There is a warning that says something like "Only save manually" but i didn't really know what it meant. Since I knew I was going to write the post, I took screenshots of all the results as they came up so I was covered anyway. I did think that it was a bad look for any supposedly commercial operation to have to put a warning on the first page saying they hadn't been able to get their website to work properly, though.

      It was a bit unfair of me to pick on this test specifically because as you say, all of these things seem to offer a range of options that go to extremes then ask you to use them to grade things for things that only sit in the middle. If they really wanted to get the full use out of those nine buttons they ought to have included a few seconds of Extreme Noise Terror or Nurse With Wound. Instead we got what sounded like a Whitesnake tribute act doing a soundcheck.

    2. If it wasn't for the fact that I've had issues using ad-blockers on Chrome mobile, I'd probably be using Chrome too, but I know too much about how black hats operate for me to do that.


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