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800 Million Songs To Hear The Rhythm Of The Planet

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One million Spotify users study shows human music patterns

Humans like to hear more vibrant music during the day. The most lively are Fridays, and as summer approaches, we prefer more intense themes. These are some of the results of a whopping 800 million songs heard by a million people on Spotify. While this data may seem logical, there are more intriguing ones: boys like more lively music than girls, but that gender difference is reversed in the two hemispheres of the planet. Or, the differences in intensity narrow as we approach the equator. That’s the rhythm of the planet.

Researchers at Cornell University (USA) have rarely had the chance to study an immense database of the Spotify music service (one of the authors of the study works in the company). They had 765 million songs selected (i.e., chosen by the user and not randomly) by one million service customers worldwide. Taking advantage of the fact that each song has a series of metadata with 11 characteristics (rhythm, if it is sung or instrumental, tempo, if it is can be danced, acoustic or electronic, Afro pop…) they were able to measure the musical intensity of each song and that of all the songs.

So they discovered that there are a series of universal patterns. They observed, for example, that humans hear more lively music between eight in the morning and eight in the evening, with a drop in mood between three and four in the morning. However, they did not see significant variations during the day. Some previous studies had detected that used tools such as Twitter posts in order to get the planetary rhythm. They also saw how the week got lively until they reached The Cure’ s Friday I’m in Love: Friday, followed by Saturday, are the days when we hear the most exciting music. Sunday and Monday, at least.

“In hindsight, many of the patterns we’ve found may seem logical,” says Michael Macy, director of Cornell’s Social Dynamics Laboratory, a sociology professor and co-author of the study, in an e-mail. “But it’s important to confirm our intuitions with empirical data and the patterns we’ve seen are based on a single database of listening habits in 51 countries around the world,” he added. Among those logical patterns would be the fact that the maximum musical intensity occurs during the summer solstice from a minimum reached in the winter months. It is also to be expected that the score in intensity of the music consumed by those under 18 will be more than double that of those over 50. But there are other seemingly less logical results.

“One of the most surprising results is the difference in gender patterns between the northern and southern hemispheres,” says Macy. Although on the global average, boys listen to more lively music than girls, “in the northern hemisphere, women listen to music with less intensity, especially at night, while in the southern hemisphere it’s the other way around: women choose music with more intensity than men prefer,” she adds. The authors of the study, published in Nature Human Behavior, do not analyze the possible causes of these differences, although they point to a possible cultural base.

“It was also somewhat unexpected that the music played in Latin America is relatively more intense and the heard in Asia more relaxed compared to Oceania, Europe or North America,” says the researcher and lead author of the study Minsu Park. “I think the last three regions are culturally similar and the results suggest that there may be cultural differences in preferences for external stimuli, such as different levels of musical intensity,” adds Macy’s pupil.

There is no explanation for this, although environmental factors could intervene, for the most surprising fact of all: in all the metrics where they detected differences (even in age differences, although to a lesser extent) these were reduced as they approached the equator. For example, it is from this imaginary line that gender differences are reversed. Park acknowledges that this is something they will have to investigate.

The authors acknowledge that the study design may introduce some bias. For example, the sample is made up of users of the paid version of Spotify. Also, they don’t have data from Africa. The study was conducted between January and December 2016, when this music service had not yet been deployed in too many African countries. Yet they consider it a good basis for the study of human behavior.

“Most of the social science research done in the U.S. is on the behavior of Americans, sometimes with the tacit assumption that the results are applicable to other countries like Nigeria music. Data from global social platforms such as Spotify, Twitter and Facebook offer a much-needed opportunity to address cross-cultural and trans-regional differences in human behavior,” argues Professor Macy. In addition, he also adds that, “It is also very difficult to observe people’s emotions at a population scale and we know that what they say about their emotions can be unreliable (we tend to put our best face on it). These data allow us to observe real human behavior, not just people’s self-reports on their behavior.

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