McMaster music mining lab delves into download habits
By Adam Carter
Finally, someone is going to be able to answer life's most important questions: like why the Skyfall theme is a hit in Istanbul or why a Trinidadian hip-hop artist is so popular in Russia.
At least, those are some of the projects researchers hope come out of McMaster University's new Digital Music Lab, which was unveiled Monday afternoon.
The project is a joint venture between the university and mobile phone giant Nokia. Matthew Woolhouse, an assistant professor of music at McMaster, has been granted access to Nokia's music streaming and downloading records stretching back to 2007.
His research team plans to pore over the expansive dataset — about 20 million song downloads — and use the research to study how music affects people and shapes culture.
“Music is intimately connected to human beings,” Woolhouse said. “It's part of our identity — therefore it says something about who we are, and where we're going.”
'Music is not really a science. But it can be studied scientifically.'
—Matthew Woolhouse, assistant professor of music at McMaster University
Researchers plan to study everything from the career path of an artist from birth to death across the globe, to refining the scope of musical genres — so no more arguing that your favourite band is Celtic metal and not black metal.
As one would expect, it's no small task, Woolhouse says.
“If you were to write it down on pieces of paper, [the data] would stretch over 2,000 kilometres — from here to Miami,” he said.
“And it's growing — Nokia is feeding us new data all the time.”
Researchers are just starting to scratch the surface of the data, but they do have some initial projects in mind.
One is music and migration: checking to see if there is an intrinsic connection with the music of a person's home country, and what happens to that connection when they move somewhere else.
“People are very connected to the music of their youth, and it's likely that it comes with them when they go abroad,” Woolhouse said.
His team is also studying people's music habits at work — checking to see if there are patterns in what people choose to listen to in the morning rather than in the evening and how listening habits change during the work week.
A 'critical mass' of data
Before coming to McMaster, Woolhouse was a consultant for Nokia during the 2010 World Cup of Soccer in South Africa. He was tasked with looking for a pattern in music downloads in relation to the changing fortunes of soccer teams.
This time, his scope and resources are much greater. “When your data reaches a critical mass — a certain size — the individual differences that exist between people become one small part of a larger emerging pattern,” he said. “So it's a question of spotting those patterns.”
While the Nokia catalogue isn't the largest in the world, “it's still a fair number,” Woolhouse said.
“Partners like Apple or Google don't usually release their data for academic use, so this is an interesting opportunity,” he said.
And before cries of protest over privacy spring up, Woolhouse says not to worry — neither he nor any member of his team gets any data about a download other than the date, time and region in which it was downloaded.
“And I can't associate that date with any specific user,” he said.
Some people say that music is too intrinsically linked to emotion to be simply summed up by datasets — and Woolhouse agrees with that sentiment, to a point.
“Music is not really a science,” he said.
“But it can be studied scientifically."