22 September 2021

Pop music pandemic

The Back Page

Anyone who’s ever caught an ear-worm knows it can be as bad as catching a fever.

You hear a snippet of a song from a passing car. A song you vaguely know but don’t particularly like. Yet for days, every time your mind wanders, you catch yourself humming that same song. It’s stuck in your head. Like a bad infection, you just can’t seem to get it out of your system.

And as your humming habit becomes a compulsion, you spread it to those closest to you. When you hear your partner singing it in the shower, you know it’s already too late for them.

If only you’d worn a mask (to muffle your tuneless, under-the-breath rendition of Never Gonna Give You Up).

While we have long referred to popular songs as “catchy” or “contagious”, a recent study has shown that music really can spread through human populations exactly like a virus.

Researchers from McMaster University in Canada sought to understand the social mechanisms by which a song’s popularity grows and declines. Applying a mathematical model of infectious disease spread to almost a decade’s worth of song download data, they found that it described trends of musical virality just as well as it described trends of actual viral virality.

From this result, they concluded that the social processes driving song popularity could be similar to those that cause diseases to spread.

“There are many similarities between the release of a new hit song and the outbreak of an infectious disease … After a new hit song is released, it also ‘spreads’ rapidly through a population, from person to person and through various media, eventually reaching some peak popularity and then diminishing in appeal.”

Interestingly, the study found that the most infectious genre of music is Electronica, which the authors suggest may be due to Electronica fans being more tightly socially connected than the larger but more diffuse fanbases of Pop or Rock.

Personally, I think it’s because Electronica has the sickest beats.

If you hear something contagious, spread it to felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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