Viral music: Disease researchers at Hamilton’s McMaster University find popular music spreads like infection


Published September 23, 2021 at 3:23 pm

Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton found that, like a virus, after a new hit song is released, it spreads rapidly through a population.

It’s not something you need to be vaccinated against — unless it’s a song you really hate — but researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton have applied modelling used for infectious diseases to study the spread of popular music.

The findings suggest that, like a virus, after a new hit song is released, it spreads rapidly through a population. It transfers from person to person through various media, eventually reaching peak popularity before it loses appeal.

“At the end of a disease epidemic, a large proportion of the population will have been infected,” says Dora Rosati, lead author of the study. “Similarly, at the end of a hit song’s period of extreme popularity, a large proportion of the population will recognize that song.”

Rosati conducted the research under the supervision of David Earn, a professor in the department of mathematics & statistics, and collaborated with colleagues Ben Bolker, a professor in mathematics & statistics and biology, and Matthew Woolhouse, an associate professor in the School of the Arts.

Researchers compiled data from a database of 1.4 billion individual song downloads from 33 countries. The data was stored on Nokia cellphones over a seven-year period and included multiple genres. However, they focused their analysis on song downloads in Great Britain.

The study determined that the contagious processes that a mathematical model reveals for infectious diseases might also be at work in driving song popularity. Both music and infectious disease depend on social connections to spread through populations.

“Whether it is a disease infecting many people or a song becoming popular, some kind of social contact is required,” says Earn.

“For an infectious disease, this is generally physical contact or breathing the air near an infected person. For a song, the contact might involve physical proximity, but it might also be virtual contact through social media. In either case, transmission relies on social networks.”

For example, the modelling suggests fans of electronica share songs more actively or more effectively than other genres. The social network of electronica fans might be more strongly connected than others. They may even be more passionate about their favourite artists.

Rosati believes the research opens up a new way of researching song popularity in the future.

“In the same way that we can now use mathematical models of disease spread to learn things like the average time an individual is infected, the final size of an epidemic, or how long an epidemic will last, we might be able to use these same models to learn things like how long, on average, an individual will listen to a song, how many people in total will download a song, or how long a song might be popular for,” she says.

The study was published in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

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