Morgan K. Ward et al. published the paper entitled “The Same Old Song: The Power of Familiarity in Music” in May of 2013 with results suggesting a preference (albeit perhaps not an aesthetic one) for familiarity in music. The study focuses on predictive factors of opt-in behavior (ie. buying) by contrasting measures of familiarity with measures of liking. This is a similar, although differently focused, metric used for a paper published in November of 2011 by Carlos Silva Pereira et al. “Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters” took a clean fMRI look at the brain’s responses during listening sessions of excerpted pop songs categorized along two axes of familiarity and liking. Both studies examined these relationships only insofar as popular (rock/pop) forms of music are concerned, making for a convenient sample (the likelihood of familiarity is increased) and, at least claimed in the 2011 paper, avoiding the difficulty in measuring a preference based on dedication and study that would, Pereira et al. claim, be present in listeners of classical music.
Both studies underscore the importance of familiarity in our music preferences. The neuroscientific approach links familiarity with reward centers in the brain, cuing the researchers to indicate that familiarity helps with emotional engagement which, in turn, can make the subject more open to positive feelings about the music, or at least associating it with emotion-laden memories. The more recent study focuses on externalized behaviors more than the workings of the conscious mind, but still seeks to isolate familiarity as a governing mechanism. By isolating this inherent dichotomy of choice (familiar or novel), Ward and her fellow researchers expose behaviors that belie many vehement moans and groans by the consumptive masses demanding more variety or less predictability. It appears that, although corporate radio may always serve as an available, faceless target, consumers actually want predictability.
In short, although we may not truly like that teeny-bopper hit playing in every shopping mall across the nation, we may actually prefer something comfortable and un-challenging.
Written By: Gabriel Rodenborn