Study: Little Rhyme Or Reason To Picking Hits

If you think there is no rhyme or reason to what songs make the top music hits of the week, you may be partly right, researchers said yesterday (Feb. 9). They tried to find a way to predict which song

If you think there is no rhyme or reason to what songs make the top music hits of the week, you may be partly right, researchers said yesterday (Feb. 9). They tried to find a way to predict which songs would be popular, and found it very difficult.

Researchers at Columbia University in New York used the Internet to create an artificial market for singles, all recorded by artists not on the current top 40 hit parade in the United States. They then persuaded more than 14,000 young Internet users to log onto the site and choose their favorites.

In a finding that may console losers in both the market and in contests such as this week's Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, they said the most popular songs were not always the songs that people thought were the best.

"The very best songs never do terribly but they can only do OK," Columbia sociologist Duncan Watts, who directed the study, said in a telephone interview. "The very worst songs never do brilliantly but they can also do OK."

While people do genuinely seem to like some songs better than others, their preferences change once they know what other people like, Watts and colleagues found. "The popular things become more popular and the less-popular things get less popular," Watts said.

People, it seems, do not entirely trust their own taste when it comes to music. The same may hold true for books and movies and may explain why the top sellers vastly outsell the rest, the researchers concluded in their report, published in the journal Science.

To judge quality, Watts and his team allowed their 14,000 mostly teenage volunteers to choose songs randomly. "If a lot of people independently vote for a song, we are going to call that quality," Watts said.

"While listening to a song, they were asked to assign a rating from one star (I hate it) to five stars (I love it), after which they were given the opportunity to download the song," the researchers wrote.

"The music for the experiment comes from, a Web site where bands can create home pages and post their music for download."

Watts does not believe that people are consciously allowing themselves to be influenced. "They think they trust their own judgment," he said.

"What makes social influence difficult to understand is that we are often unaware of it. We always think we are voting without preferences. We don't think we like bad songs. We actually persuade ourselves that we think it's good and that we would think it was good even if our friends didn't like it."

And in the real world, marketing and other pressures add to the confusion, he said. Payola, for instance, occurred when radio disc jockeys were paid to play certain songs, which in turn influenced listeners both through repetition and by creating the impression that a song was already popular.

Watts believes the findings will hold true for other things such as books, movies and art. "People think they have opinions about modern art but nobody really knows anything about it," he said.

And perhaps most importantly, Watts said the experiment showed that the Internet can provide a useful way to study behavior on a mass scale. Many social and psychological experiments are now done using university undergraduates who volunteer.

"Try putting 14,000 teenagers in a lab. That wasn't possible a few years ago," he said. "There are all sorts of interesting questions we can ask about how society makes choices or solves problems."

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