How scientists say a hit song is like an infectious disease

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Researchers at McMaster University have discovered several similarities between an infectious disease outbreak and the release of a new hit song.

Researchers have found that epidemic modeling can be used to determine what drives the popularity of hit songs, often described as contagious, infectious, or viral.

“When a disease enters a population you tend to see a large increase in infection cases and it will eventually peak at some point when it finds its way into the susceptible population and begins to decline,” Dora Rosati, lead author of the study, told CBC Hamilton.

“We are seeing the same trend with song downloads in our data. There would be a big increase as more and more people heard about the song and wanted to listen to it, and then it would peak and decrease.”

Dora Rosati, lead author of the study, says the team showed it makes sense to use a mathematical model of disease spread to study the popularity of songs. (Submitted by Dora Rosati)

Rosati said if you think a song is “infectious” the analogy continues from there.

“If you are sensitive to a song, which means if you hear it, you may want to listen to it more and download it, then you become infected, which means you actively listen to that song and make it into it. promoting to other people in some way – whether that’s by telling your friends “Hey, there’s that awesome new song I just heard” or playing it on the radio in your car for people to hear or use, or on your social media in some way.
“When you do that you infect other people and eventually you move on to the next song or you get a little bit fed up with this one and stop listening to it so actively and then we consider that you are cured, for use disease terminology, ”Rosati said.
David Earn (left), professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and Matthew Woolhouse, associate professor in the School of the Arts at McMaster University. (Submitted by Dora Rosati)

New songs spread quickly through a population

According to researchers, when an infectious disease first enters a population, it is transmitted from person to person through social interactions. The pathogen eventually peaks and then declines as fewer people are susceptible or as infectious individuals recover.

After the release of a new hit song, it also “spreads” rapidly across a population, from person to person through various media, eventually peaking in popularity before losing its appeal, said. Researchers.

“The most important finding of the study is that we have shown that it makes sense to use a mathematical model of the spread of disease to study the popularity of songs and it opens the door to all kinds of things we could. learn about the popularity of songs, ”says Rosati.

“For example, right now we can use these models to learn things about an outbreak, like how long the outbreak will last, how many people could be infected, what could be the greatest number of people infected simultaneously, and if we can apply that in a song context, we could learn analogous things like how many people in total could download a song, how long the song will be popular for, and what the maximum popularity of that song would be.

“Another significance of the study is that it tells us something about how music and an infectious disease depend on our social ties to spread across populations,” Rosati added.

Ben Bolker, Professor in the Departments of Mathematics and Statistics and Biology at McMaster University. (Submitted by Dora Rosati)

The researchers obtained data from a database containing 1.4 billion downloads of individual songs, from 33 different countries, via Nokia cell phones over a period of seven years, which included genres such as dance, metal, pop, reggae, country and western and electronics, a style of music derived from techno and rave. They focused their analysis on the song downloads that took place in Great Britain.

Rosati conducted the research under the supervision of David Earn, professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and collaborated with colleagues Ben Bolker, professor in the Departments of Mathematics and Statistics and Biology, and Matthew Woolhouse, associate professor in the School of the arts.

They determined that the contagious processes revealed by a mathematical model for infectious diseases could also be at work in the popularity of the songs. That is, music and infectious diseases depend on social ties to spread across populations.

“Whether it’s a disease infecting many people or a song that’s becoming popular, some kind of social contact is needed,” Earn said.

“For an infectious disease, it is usually physical contact or breathing air near an infected person. For a song, the contact can involve physical proximity, but it can also be ‘virtual contact via social networks. In both cases, the transmission relies on social networks. networks. “

For example, modeling suggests that electronica fans share songs more actively or effectively than other genres such as pop. The social network of electro fans may be more strongly connected than other fan communities or they may be more passionate about their favorite songs and bands.
This graph shows Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance download time series (proportion of total downloads), with the mathematical model trajectory shown in green. (Submitted by Dora Rosati)

A whole new way to research the popularity of songs

According to Rosati, the other important implication of the results is that they open up a whole new way to research the popularity of songs in the future.

“In the same way that we can now use mathematical models of the spread of disease to learn things like the average duration of an individual’s infection, the final size of an epidemic, or the duration of an epidemic, we Maybe we could 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 could be popular, ”Rosati said.

Researchers reported their findings in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

Woolhouse said the study is a demonstration of the creative and interdisciplinary research taking place at McMaster, adding that it brings together “big data, musical expertise and mathematical knowledge.”

Even though the study is unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic, Woolhouse said, “given our recent collective experiences, it is sure to capture the popular imagination.”


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