New mathematical paper shows songs spread like viruses

How do earworms propagate? A study published this week in the Royal Society uses models from epidemiology to track the spread of music. The researchers use "data from MixRadio, comprising song downloads through Nokia cell phones in Great Britain from 2007 to 2014." Using mathematical tools usually applied to infection, the paper finds that popular songs do indeed spread like viruses. Certain genres are more "infectious" than others.

The most "infectious" genre was electronic, with a basic reproduction value (R0) of 3430. That is, in an entirely susceptible population, one person sharing electronic music (by "talking about the song, playing it, sharing it on social media or requesting it on the radio") could influence 3430 others to download it. "This makes it roughly 190 times more transmissible than measles, which has an R0 of about 18," writes Linda Geddes in The Guardian. The paper puts forth a few guesses as to why electronic music is so infectious: perhaps many people are closed off to it thus "immune," or electronica fans are particularly well connected or passionate about their favorite songs.

The next most "infectious" genres were rap and rock, and the least were dance and metal. Notably, most genres showed high variability in contagiousness. Lead author Dora Rosati discussed the research team's findings with The Guardian.

"It implies that a lot of the social processes that drive the spread of disease, or analogues of those processes, might also be driving the spread of songs. More specifically, it supports the idea that both music and infectious diseases depend on social connections to spread through populations.

Dora Rosati in The Guardian

It's unclear how the findings, which are based on download data, apply to music streaming.