Research reveals the science behind our music download choices

New digital methods of curating our musical libraries have led to significant changes in modern listening habits and how we think about music, according to a study including a Keele University psychologist.

With adults now listening to music for an average of 18 hours a week, and some reaching more than double that amount, the methods we use to collect and curate our music libraries, such as downloading tracks to our personal devices, have resulted in significant changes in listening habits.

But new research, co-authored by Keele’s Professor of Music Psychology Alexandra Lamont and published in the journal Plos One, has found that music fans rarely mention the musical content of songs - such as lyrics or melodies - when discussing the tracks downloaded on their devices.

The researchers asked nearly 400 people to shuffle their music libraries using apps like Spotify, and answer questions about the first two tracks to come up, reflecting on why they downloaded and kept the songs.

Despite the most common answer from participants being “because I like it”, the researchers noted that a considerable amount of attention was devoted to informational contexts around songs - such as the artist, album or genre - rather than the music content of the track itself.

The authors also found that this informational context was even prioritised by participants over their emotional response to the music, with fewer people talking about the emotions that the songs evoked when discussing their randomly-selected songs.

Professor Lamont co-authored the study alongside lead author Dr Neta Spiro from the Royal College of Music, Dr Katie Rose Sanfilippo from Goldsmiths University of London, and Dr Miguel Molina-Solana from Imperial College London.

Professor Lamont said: “While it’s obvious from much existing research that emotion is a fundamental part of our close relationships to music, this study has uncovered some of the more practical elements of responses to music. As well as its emotional functions, music is a field in which many of us are now experts, and are keen to share our expertise when it comes to the music we own.

“Listeners offer practical knowledge of the track, such as how it fits within an artist’s output, as well as personal associations with people or places. The range of responses we see using the shuffled play method underlines the complexity of responses to music from general information about the music to highly personal memories and emotions.

“This provides a valuable addition to research that often asks people to select their favourite music, giving us more insights into the everyday experience of music listening through technology.”