The same old song: The power of familiarity in music choice

Hello there!

I recently heard about a study published this past May. Its title is the same as the title of this post. The study states that consumers prefer familiar music over unfamiliar music, although consumers will say that they prefer to hear new music (I believe that it should be noted that throughout the study, the authors refer to unfamiliar music as “novelty music”). If you want to read it before my analysis, which is a good idea, please follow this link:

Done yet? Excellent. Reading below, you’ll find it no secret that I strongly disagree with the results.

First off, something I find very interesting is that the authors totally ignore variety, going instead for what is familiar. They, in fact, admit this in a footnote:

In this research, we concentrate on familiarity, and do not address variety or variety-seeking. Variety
refers to the number of different items in an assortment (Broniarczyk et al. 1998; McAlister and Pessemier
1982; Ratner et al. 1999), and variety-seeking refers to the desire to consume a diverse set of items. A very
diverse assortment could include all familiar or all unfamiliar goods, and a very homogenous assortment
could likewise vary a great deal in familiarity. In other words, high variety does not imply low familiarity
and vice versa.

There is a vast difference between the desire for new music and a desire for a variety in music. Turn on DC101 (for us in the WMA) for a couple hours, and you’ll hear at least two of the most popular songs played at least two times each. Beside that, you’ll hear the same songs within that two hour period repeated multiple times throughout the day. What this shows shows is a strong lack of variety. When consumers say they want to hear new music, it is quite possible that they mean is that they want to hear a larger variety. There are many independent artists that play familiar-sounding music, but the bands themselves would be considered new to anyone who hasn’t heard them. The study did not address this.

Another problem with the study is that the participants did not actually listen to the songs that they chose! They were presented with a list of 48 songs and band names that the authors believed the participants would be familiar with. This list was broken down into 24 songs that are played more on the radio, and 24 that are played less. These were then paired, so that participants would see a familiar song paired with a less familiar (although not necessarily new; something the study neglects to mention) song. The participants were asked to choose which one they prefer, after they had stated whether they like new music or familiar music. Based on this information, the authors determined that participants prefer familiar music.

The authors did not take into account factors such as social acceptance, whether participants were just going along with what was popular, or the “cool factor.” I find the lack of information there very troubling, considering all of the participants were undergraduates, who as well all know are very susceptible to peer pressure. It would be very interesting to see this same study done on a wider age group.

That’s just a couple things wrong with this study. I must be off to work my novel.

In closing, it is very important, not just for personal entertainment but for enrichment of our culture as well, to listen to wide variety of music, both familiar and unfamiliar.


Thanks for reading! Please share with me your own thoughts on this study, should you have them :)