The Music IS Your Master: The Science Behind Our Loyalty to Our Heroes


Music and science nerds the world over, listen up: the strongest among you has risen and you now have a new king.

Nicolás Mongiardino Koch, a biologist pursuing his PhD at Yale University, has penned an exhaustive scientific paper based on his research into how and why we listen to our favorite bands so much, a phenomenon known as “preferential attachment.” According to his research, how much you listen to a certain band depends on the frequency you listened to them in the past. In a move certain to give plenty of heavy music fans a bonafide stiffy, he used Led Zeppelin lyrics in the title: “Let the music be your master: Power laws and music listening habits.”

Seeing as how I’m a wanton slut for anything Zeppelin-related or having to do with science (still gonna finish that second degree in Biology someday), I did my best to wade through the eye-crossing formulas and technical jargon of the paper to boil it down and make it easy to comprehend for the tl;dr crowd. Turns out Koch and his research partner Ignacio M. Soto downloaded the listening history of 50 voracious Last.fm listeners (we’re talking people who listened for a minimum of three hours a day, not the casual music consumer) and found their patterns followed a power law. This basically means when we’re talking about two related variables, a change in one variable incurs a proportional change in its related variable.

The variables in question here are the listener and their preferred bands and genres. The more a listener consumed, the more likely it was they gravitated toward a specific artist or set of similar artists. The inverse was true for more casual listeners; they tended to have broader, less defined musical tastes. This could very well be the reason so many of us intensely devoted to certain genres eye-roll ourselves into temporary blindness when a non-elitist says something like “Oh me? I like all music, expect maybe country and rap.”  Shut up, asshole. No you don’t.

Imperialist views on lazy listening aside, the four basic functions of music in society are cited in the paper as follows: energizing, distracting, meaning-enhancing, and entertaining, all of which seem entirely logical and relevant to me. I frequently get ready for a night out while listening to Maiden, never leave the house without headphones in an attempt to mute the cacophony of city life, put on West Virginia bands (Vince says it best: Nobody beats the ‘Byz) when I’m feeling particularly homesick, and spend countless hours watching old Zeppelin live videos with my husband on quiet evenings when television seems tedious. I’m willing to bet if you take the time to read anything on a site dedicated to heavy metal, you too have immediate examples of the ways in which music makes life enjoyable or, at the minimum, tolerable.

In the conclusion, Koch sums his findings up quite nicely in a way many of us can find relatable:

Music is one of the most ubiquitous cultural expressions of mankind, and has been considered by some to be one of the most biologically significant activities in human life… Music can also be used to define our social identity and guide our relationships with others, or may simply be enjoyed because of its aesthetic appeal. Given this breadth in uses and purposes, music preferences are expected to be an amalgam of many complex underlying factors, including personality traits, familiarity and repetition, social context and musical training.

Find the full paper here, if you’re so inclined.

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