1 million Spotify users offer clues to world’s emotions

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Time of day and season influence our music choices, which also differ by gender, age, and geography, according to a new study.

The research finds that people of every culture listen to more relaxing music late at night and more energetic music during daytime business hours; the researchers also found that across cultures, people were more likely to listen to less intense music as they got older.

Michael Macy, professor of arts and sciences in sociology and in information science at Cornell University, is senior author the study in Nature Human Behavior.

Macy and first author Minsu Park, a graduate student in information science and a member of Macy’s Social Dynamics Lab, analyzed an enormous data set: 765 million online music plays, streamed from Spotify in 2016, by 1 million people from 51 countries. The researchers used Spotify tools rating the musical intensity from “highly relaxing (acoustic, instrumental, ambient, and flat or low tempo) to highly energetic (strong beat, danceable, loud, and bouncy).”

Who listens to what?

Almost half of internet users between ages 16 and 64 stream music during the day. The study found that people in the West tend to play more arousing music, while those in Asia play more relaxing music, consistent with other research reflecting a cultural preference for high- vs. low-arousal positive emotional states.

And while globally women listen to music with lower intensity, particularly in the evening, the researchers found a hemispheric gender difference: In the Southern Hemisphere, women chose music with higher intensity than men; in the Northern Hemisphere, the pattern was the opposite.

A person’s chronotype influences music choice as well: “Night owls” stream music of lower intensity, while “evening people” listen to music with the highest intensity scores. However, the increase in intensity of night owls’ choices for their daytime music choices is proportionately greater than the other chronotypes, which may reflect their use of musical stimulation to help them remain alert during the day, the researchers say.

This was the first study to look at Northern vs. Southern Hemisphere differences in music choice. The researchers find that people prefer relaxing music during cold seasons, and highly arousing music during warmer seasons. Absolute day length (the interval between sunrise and sunset) was the best predictor of musical intensity, as evidenced by the decrease in seasonal variation found near the equator.

Emotions around the world

The study did not measure mood itself, but the results are similar to those in an earlier study by Macy and Scott Golder, of affect in Twitter messages, which the researchers say provides support for the idea that music consumption closely aligns with listeners’ emotions. One striking difference between the studies: The new work found that rousing music is preferred throughout the work day, with no midafternoon mood slump as was seen in the Twitter messages.

The observational study offers no causal explanation for the findings but gives a “more complete picture of the emotional rhythms in human behavior,” the researchers write.

“Across the social sciences there’s a lot of interest in the study of emotion and emotional regulation and preferences,” Macy says. “Suddenly we have these data on what music people are choosing to listen to all over the world, and it’s a remarkable opportunity to advance our understanding, empirically, of people’s emotional management based on how they use music.”

And while there are practical applications of the study for the music and streaming industry, Macy says individuals may also use the results to be more strategic in their choice of music to reinforce or influence their emotions.

Park’s summer 2017 internship at Spotify inspired the study. Other contributors to the work are from Spotify.

The National Science Foundation, the US Defense Department’s Minerva Initiative, the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea, and the National Research Foundation of Korea.

Source: Cornell University