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Cornell researchers analyzed a data set of 765 million online Spotify music plays.

January 31, 2019

Cornell-Led Research Team Links Music Choice to Weather, Region, Gender and Age

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What are you listening to as you trek through the snowy campus in this weather? With Ithaca facing record-setting low temperatures, it’s likely that you are not blasting some rock n’ roll.

Cornell researchers found that music choices vary based on weather, culture, age, gender and other factors. Rather than examine the emotions people express or ordinarily feel, Prof. Michael Macy, sociology, and Minsu Park, grad, sought to investigate the emotions people seek to feel by studying their choices of music.

These music choices reflect people’s emotional preferences, which are influenced by time of day and weather and also differ across age, gender, culture and geography, according to their study, which was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Drawing from a massive data set of 765 million online Spotify music plays, the researchers analyzed the musical choices streamed in 2016 by one million people from 51 different countries.

Through the research, Macy and Park found that “night owls” who sought to remain alert during nighttime bent towards relaxing, low-intensity melodies. In the winter, the same trends occurred among Spotify users.

Summer, on the other hand, dictated more upbeat musical preferences as it’s associated with greater activity and daylight.

“We found evidence that seasonal variations in music intensity around the summer solstice may reflect changes in activities associated with warmer temperatures, not changes in daylight,” Macy said. 

Macy dubbed this phenomenon “mood management,” or when people utilized music to control their mood, rather than express it.

The study further revealed that Asian civilizations tended to listen to more relaxed music than their Western counterparts.

Gender and age also plays a role in determining music preferences: in the northern hemisphere, women prefer less intense music, yet these preferences are reversed in the Southern hemisphere, as females sought more upbeat tunes; older people, furthermore, were inclined towards more calming music, while younger people chose more exciting music.

Macy and Park did not speculate on a causal explanation for the findings, instead outlining “a more complete picture of the emotional rhythms in emotional behavior,” the researchers wrote.

“We hope that our study will invite future theory and spur more research,” Park said.

Macy said he was grateful for the opportunity to conduct a study on “such a global scale” with a “cross-cultural” scope because the data is not often available to make these comparisons.

“Social science is very provincial, and the data that we had access to was not just specific to our own culture,” Macy said. “We sometimes get cultural blinders, but the nice thing here was that we could look globally at the affective preferences revealed through music across different cultures and regions.”

An earlier version of this article misquoted the reasoning behind the seasonal variations in music.