Catchy Songs that ‘go viral’ are way more similar to Infectious Disease than you think

According to new research out of Great Britain, catchy songs that ‘go viral’ are downloaded in a way that closely resembles the spread of an actual virus.

The details were collected before the days of streaming music, but the study suggests that some tunes are downright infectious, jumping from one host to another in a similar way to a pathogen.

When researchers tracked song downloads from Nokia cell phones between 2007 and 2014, they found some tunes fit easily into a common model of infectious disease, known as the susceptible infectious recovered (SIR) model. Authors wrote,

“Popular songs are often described as ‘viral’ or ‘catchy’ as if they could ‘infect’ people; perhaps this description is more apt than has been previously recognized.”

“The download time series for many popular songs that we examine in this study are similar in shape to time series for infectious diseases.”

The SIR model was developed to highlight the elementary mechanisms behind disease transfer. At first, that might sound like a wild idea, but it’s something that researchers have been postulating for a while now.

Although there might be something about the inherent nature of a musical tune that makes it more likely to ‘go viral’, emerging research suggests the structure of a community also influences a song’s popularity.

Also, studies have found teenagers are likely to change their opinion on a song when given the opinion of others. Both lines of research suggest tunes only go viral if the song itself is infectious enough and if the right social conditions exist.

Catchy Songs

In the current study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical and Physical Sciences, when researchers compared various genres of song, they identified different types of downloading and music sharing behavior between fans.

Even though pop music being considered the most popular, for instance, songs in the Electronica genre seemed to gain popularity and ‘spread’ the fastest in Great Britain. The result is that Electronica’s hit songs go through shorter, faster epidemics, meaning that these “songs appear to gain popularity faster than those in other genres, and to burn through their susceptible populations more quickly.”

Similarly, it happens when an infectious virus spreads through a tight-knit community. First, it is transmitted from person to person via social interactions. Then, when the pool of susceptible individuals is exhausted, it reaches a peak and begins to decline.

“At the end of a disease epidemic, a large proportion of the population will have been infected with the disease,” the authors described, “whereas, at the end of a hit song’s period of extreme popularity, a large proportion of the population will recognize that song.”

Hopefully, more researchers will begin using the simple SIR model to not only explore contagions of disease but contagions of music as well.


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