The same old song: The power of familiarity in music choice
Morgan K. Ward & Joseph K. Goodman & Julie R. Irwin
Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013
Abstract Does "familiarity breed contempt" or is "to know you is to love you"? In
this research, we explore the role of familiarity in music choice. We show that
although consumers say they would prefer to listen to unfamiliar music, in actuality
familiarity with music positively predicts prefer ence for songs, play lists, and radio
stations. Familiarity with music is at least as good, if not a better, predictor of choice
as are liking, satiation (which actually positively predicts choice), and regret. We
suggest that the need for familiarity is driven by consumers' low need for stimulation
in the music domain, and show that when the need for stimulation decreases, the
power of familiarity significantly increases. In addition to their theoretical contribu-
tion, these results are informative for music managers determining playlists, for the
promotion of music events and products, and for advertisers selecting the most
potentially lucrative music venues.
Optimum stimulation level
Imagine you are reaching for the radio dial or for your iPod. You have an almost
limitless array of music at your fingertips and yet somehow you find yourself
choosing that familiar old Motown song or comfortable Bach aria. You have just
encountered the persistent tension in music choice between the opposi ng forces of the
Each author contributed equally to this work. The authors wish to thank Rebecca Naylor, Leonardo
Nicolao, Roger Kerin, and the entire Irwin Lab for the help on this research.
M. K. Ward (*)
Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University, 6212 Bishop Blvd, Dallas, TX 75275, USA
J. K. Goodman
Olin Business School, Washington University in St Louis, St Louis, MO, USA
J. R. Irwin
McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA
known and familiar versus the novel and new. People exhibit both tendencies in their
consumption choices, and psychological theory has addressed the two forces exten-
sively. However, despite the obvious managerial interest in the power of one force
versus another, there is surprisingly little research examining which of these opposing
forces will dominate in particular markets.
In this manuscript, we investigate the relative power of these two drives, the need
for novelty and the power of familiarity, in the context of music choice. We show that
familiarity exerts a very powerful force over music choice, one that would not be
anticipated either by writing in the popular press on the subject, or by consumers’
own reporting of how much familiarity they desire.
We examine music choice for several reasons. Music is big business, an over $30
billion dollar indus try, with many customers (e.g., Web radio now exceeds 57 million
consumers each week). Instead of disappearing, traditional radio formats continue to
endure even in the face of technological changes (Edison 2006), and the largest and
most popular formats continue to be music-based ( www.arbitron.com). In 2011, radio
reached nearly 95 % of the U.S. population, and U.S. radio advertising netted $17.4
billion in revenues (Radio Advertising Bureau 2009). Newer formats such as Satellite
Radio continue the tradition of providing music for customers; music stations com-
prise a large proportion of the Sirius XM radio stations ( siriusxm.com). Whether it is
distributed via traditional radio, satellite radio, or Internet music sites, the music
industry gene rates profits p rimarily from music sales and advertising reve nue
(eMarketer 2010). Offering and/or emphasizing songs consumers want is good
marketing strategy, as is choosing to advertise in venues that play preferred music.
Despite the size of the current radio market and its contin ued growth, many commenta-
tors suggest that the future of radio is bleak because stations play too much of the same
music (Dotinga 2005). Social media echoes this sentiment; for example, Facebook groups
such as “I’m Tired of Hearing the same 10 songs on the Radio,”“Corporate Radio Sucketh,”
“We Want the Airwa ves Back, ” and “Death to Corporate Radio” all espouse a similar
message: “To bring back the radio as a means of h earing a variety of new… music.”
However, as we will show, the music consumers say they like may not predict
what they choose when faced with the prospect of actually listening to the music.
Across four studies, we show that familiarity is a stronger predictor of music choice
than other prevalent measures such as liking and satiation. Furthermore, we show that
consumers pick music that they are familiar with even when they believe they would
prefer less familiar music. To our knowledge, our research is the first to quantify the
effect of familiarity versus other forces (including liking) on consumer choice and to
determine the power of these variables on actual market behavior.
2 Literature review
2.1 Seeking the less familiar
Maddi (1968 ) argued that c ons umer s h ave an “internal drive” to seek o ut n ew
experiences, and to select less familiar items as means of creating new feelings,
experiences, and emotions (Mow en 1988). In experiential consumption decisions
relevant to our inquiry, such as the domains of fashion (Campbell 1992) and art
(Berlyne 1971), researchers find that people’s “desire for the new” often prompts
them to choose items with novel aesthetic features.
There is also ample evidence that consumers are drawn to the famili ar and known.
The mere exposure effect confirms that exposure to a stimulus can increase positive
affect towards it (Zajonc 1968), across many types of stimuli (e.g., Berryman 1984).
Perceptual fluency theory provides some explanation for the mere exposure effect.
The theory asserts that the number of times a person has been exposed to a stimulus is
positively related to the ease with which it comprehended, leadi ng people to like it
more simply because it is easy to process (Jacoby and Dallas 1981).
In sum, the psychology literature suggests both that novel items will be preferred
and that familiar items will be preferred. Unfortunately, this extensive work does not
provide much actionable managerial guidance for marketers as to whi ch stimulus a
consumer will actually choose in a particular product category. Based on research
suggesting that consumers fear satiation but do not actually experience it to the extent
they predict (Ratner et al. 1999) and that perceptual fluency may be especially
powerful for brand and product choices (Ferraro, Bettman, and Chartrand 2009), we
propose that, in the music domain, consumers will believe that they will prefer newer
songs, but their actual choices will be driven by familiarity.
2.3 The power of familiarity: familiarity versus liking/satiation
Three components of preference are likely to play a role in song choice: the extent to
which the consumer is familiar with the song(s) offered, the extent to which a consumer
likes (or expects that they would like) a song, and the extent to which a consumer is
satiated with (“sick of”) a song they have heard already. The latter components already
play a role in corporate marketing researchers’ attempt to predict consumers’ prefer-
ences for music. “Auditorium music tests” (e.g., strategicradiosolutions.com)and“rate
the music” surveys conducted by radio stations and online music retail outlets ask for
both listeners’ expected liking and how “sick of” the songs they are. We propose that
familiarity will be at least as powerful, if not more powerful, a predictor of music choice
than either of these commonly used liking or satiation measures.
2.4 Optimum stimulation level
Although we are making overall predictions about which force will win in music choice,
we also recognize that this main effect likely depends on differences in market context.
Optimum Stimulation Level theory (OSL) (Berlyne 1960; Fiske and Maddi 1961)posits
an inverted U-shaped function, intermediate levels of stimulation perceived as the most
In this research, we concentrate on familiarity, and do not address variety or variety-seeking. Variety
refers to the number of different items in an assortment (Broniarczyk et al. 1998; McAlister and Pessemier
1982; Ratner et al. 1999), and variety-seeking refers to the desire to consume a diverse set of items. A very
diverse assortment could include all familiar or all unfamiliar goods, and a very homogenous assortment
could likewise vary a great deal in familiarity. In other words, high variety does not imply low familiarity
and vice versa.
satisfying. Individuals’ vary on OSL, and individuals strategically adapt their consump-
tion choices in order to maintain a desirable level of stimulation to remain engaged with
(but not overwhelmed by) their environment. Thus, we predict that OSL will moderate
preference for familiar music. When individuals are more (vs. less) stimulated by their
context, they will prefer more (vs. less) familiar music.
3 Pilot study
In a pilot study, we assess radio listeners' opinions of the music they hear on the radio and
predict that listeners will express a conscious desire for more novel music on the radio.
We surveyed 386 U.S. individuals via Mechanical Turk (Goodman et al. forthcoming).
Participants responded to four statements (1=strongly disagree/7=strongly agree):
“Radio is too repetitive,”“Radio should play more new music,”“I’m sick of listening
to the same music on the radio,” and “I look for new songs on the radio” and then
answered an open-ended question about their impression of music played on the radio.
3.2 Results and discussion
Confirming our predictions, participants endorsed the idea that: radio stations should play
more new music, M=4.95; F(386)=396.6, p<.001, they found themselves looking for
new music on the radio M=4. 45; F(386)=158.78, p<.001, the songs played on the radio
are too repetitive, M=6.03; F(386)=479.61, p<.001, and they were sick of listening to the
same music on the radio M=5.08,F(386)=458.38, p<.001. Likewise, many of their open-
ended responses referenced their intent to abandon radio due to the lack of novel music. In
our next studies, we test whether in fact people prefer novel music.
4 Study 1: choice study
In this study, parti cipants rated their liking, familiarity, and satiation with 24 different
songs. These questions are similar to how radio and music research is traditionally
conducted (Little 2010). To simulate a radio listening choice experience, we asked
participants to choose which songs they would prefer to listen to from pairs of songs.
We predicted familiarity would predict song choice, above and beyond the effect of
liking and satiation. The stimuli were songs that were currently played on the radio,
and artists that would be familiar to the respondents so that they could predict their
liking for the song.
In a within-subject experiment, 190 undergraduate students viewed the names and
artists of 48 songs that were currently being played on popular radio stations. The
song list was purposely composed half of songs that were played more and half of
songs played less on the radio according to published playlists. In the first of three
sets of questions, participa nts rated how much they liked (expected to like) each song.
In the second, they rated how familiar they were with each song, and in the third, they
rated how satiated with (“ sick of”) the song they were (all on seven-point scales). The
24 songs were randomized within the blocks of questions. After a 15-min filler task,
participants viewed 24 pairs of songs containing one more familiar song and one less
familiar song. To control for artist, 10 of the 24 choices contained two songs that were
from the same artist; the remaining 14 pairs contained songs that were from different
artists. The results were not affected by this difference. Participants chose which of
the two songs they would prefer to listen to for 3 min.
We obtained individual slopes by participant for familiarity, liking, and satiation. In
the following sections, we report the mean slopes for each regression and computed
the statistical significance of each slope (Table 1).
4.2.1 Simple models
Songs that were more liked β=.12, F(189)=111.42, p<.001, more familiar, β=.06,
F(189)=277.55, p<.001, and, (surprisingly) that participants were sick of β=.01,
F(189)=4.79, p<.05 were more likely to be chosen.
4.2.2 Full multivariate regression models
Regressing choice onto liking and familiarity showed that familiarity continues to
predict choice, β=.03, F(189)=30.36, p<.001, above and beyond the significant
effect of liking, β=.10, F(189)=376.36, p<.001 (Fig. 1).
When we control for satiation, familiarity continues to significantly predict choice,
β=.10, F(189)=513.02, p<.001, as well as when we control for both satiation and
Table 1 Study 1: model slopes and R
Familiar Liking Sick
Β Tp β tpβ tpR
Simple models 0.06 16.66 <.001 –– – – – – 0.14
–– – 0.12 33.78 <.001 –––0.16
–– – –– – 0.01 2.19 <.05 0.08
Multivariate models 0.03 5.51 <.001 0.10 19.4 <.001 –––0.22
0.10 22.65 <.001 –– – −0.06 10.54 <.001 0.21
–– – 0.12 29.13 <.001 0.00 0.44 ns 0.21
0.05 8.13 <.001 0.08 13.79 <.001 −0.03 5.85 <.001 0.25
liking, β=.05, F(189)=67.07, p<.001. The surprisingly positive relationship between
satiation and choice is driven by familiarity; satiation only becomes negatively related
to choice when familiarity is controlled for in the model, β=−.06, F(189)=111.09,
Thus, familiarity is a strong driver of song choice, and does not drive song choice
simply because it is related to liking. Notably, the typical satiation measure used
extensively by marketers to negatively predict preference actually significantly pos-
itively predicts choice because it includes a component of the powerful familiarity
4.2.3 Relative explanatory power of familiarity
When familiarity was added to the simple liking model, it continued to signif-
icantly predict preference M=.41 vs. M=.49, F(1,1 89 )=131.90, p<.001, show-
ing that familiarity helps predict participants’ music choices even above and
beyond the consumers’ own rated liking for the songs. This shows that our
findings cannot be due to respondents being unable to rate their liking for less
familiar songs; even holding liking constant, familiarity is a strong predictor of
In Study 1, consumers chose to listen to more familiar music over less familiar music.
Furthermore, familiarity predicted choice above and beyond liking. Familiarity was
such a strong predictor of choice that it even drove an unexpected positive relation-
ship between satiation and preference.
Although the data are supportive of our predictions, there are limitations to Study 1.
Participants did not have to actually listen to their chosen song. Also, one could argue
that participants are choosing based on social endorsement, to be accepted or cool by
choosing popular songs. In addition, respondents could be exhibiting ambiguity aver-
sion, trying to minimize regret by avoiding risky and less familiar songs. In our next
study, we address these alternative explanations.
Probability of Choosing the Song
Familiarity with the Son
Study 1: The Effect of Familiarity on Choice by Model
(controlling for liking & sick)
Fig. 1 Study 1: the effect of
familiarity on choice by model
5 Study 2: real choices
In a within-participants experiment, 244 undergraduates made 16 choices between
song dyads selected from a subset of the same songs used as stimuli in Study 1. The
study was conducted via computer in the laboratory where participants were
instructed that they would actually listen to the songs they chose at the end of the
study. In each choice set, participants chose between a less familiar and more familiar
song. As in the previous study, the songs were all currently played on the radio (at
varying numbers of spins), and all of the artists were likely familiar to the respon-
dents. Of the 16 dyads, 8 were between songs by the same recording artist (with order
counterbalanced) and 8 were randomized pairs (with different artists and order
counterbalanced) with a total of 128 possible combinations. There were no differ-
ences in the effects across these two types of stimuli. After making their choices,
participants rated familiarity, liking, coolness, and how much they believed they
would regret their choice if they picked the other song in the pair on 1–7 scales. At
the end of the study, participants listened to one of their chosen songs.
5.2.1 Simple models
As expected, songs that were more liked, β=.16,t(237)=26.81, p<.001, or rated as more
cool, β=.15, F(237)=501.31, p<.001, were more likely to be chosen. Regret, which is a
measure of uncertainty and ambiguity aversion, had a negative effect on choice, β=−.12,
F(237)=295.84, p<.001. As in the previous two studies, the more familiar a song was,
the more likely it was to be chosen, β=.10, F(237)=421.89, p<.001.
5.2.2 Full multivariate regression models
Again, we find support for our prediction that familiarity has a significant effect on
choice above and beyond liking, β=.06, F(237)=105.47, p<.001. We added the
variables cool and regret to the model with both familiarity and liking, to test whether
these variables explain our effects of familiarity on choice. Liking continued to
predict choice in this model, β=.06, F(237)=26.11, p<.001, and regret, β=−.03,
F(237)=6.86, p=.09, and cool, β=.02; F(237)=3.34, p=.07, had a marginally sig-
nificant effect on choice. Most importantly, familiarity co ntinued to significantly
predict choice, β=.06; F(237)=61.78, p<.001 with all variables in the model (Fig. 2),
showing that they are not the locus of the familiarity effect. Thus, social acceptance and
ambiguity aversion do not explain our results.
5.2.3 Relative explanatory power of familiarity
The difference between the explanatory power of liking and familiarity was only
marginally significant, F(1,233)=2.80, p<.1, implying that familiarity is almost as
strong a predictor as liking in predicting choice. Some of the participants in this
experiment had only a nominal model fit for the full model including both familiarity
and liking (i.e., R
<.1), so we conducted a follow-up analysis excluding these
participants. In this analysis, familiarity had marginally more explanatory power,
M=.72, compared to liking, M=.68, F(1, 219)=3.09, p=.08 in predicting choice.
More importantly, we again see an increase in the R
when we add familiarity to
the simple liking model, M=.65 vs. M=.86, F(1,233)=166.97, p<.001, indicating
that familiarity adds significant explanatory power when predicting participants’ song
choice. In sum, the results provide additional evidence that familiarity is at least as
good, if not a better, predictor of choice than liking in these song choices.
Study 2 shows that people are likely to choose music based on familiarity, even when
they will have to actually listen to the music, and that the effect of familiarity on
choice is not due to avoidance of regret, the perceived coolness, or the social
endorsement of a song. In addition, all of our analyses together show that familiarity’s
dominance is not due to participants ’ inability to rate their liking of less familiar
songs. The results also confirm that liking does not drive the strong relationship
between familiarity and preference. In fact, familiarity predicts choice above and
beyond liking, has a stronger direct effect on choice than does liking, and in some
tests has even more explanatory power than does liking.
Our psychological explanation for this effect is that people have a low OSL (Raju
1980) for music. In our next study, we manipulate stimulation level directly, using
cognitive load (Furnham and Br adley 1997), to support our hypothesis. Cognitive
load is an effective method to manipulate stimulation thresholds, and it is particularly
relevant to music choice because musical usage occasions often involve o ther
activities such as driving, reading, and exercising (North et al. 2004).
5.4 Study 3: optimal stimulation via cognitive load
We expect lowered OSL, operationalized using cognitive load, to moderate our
familiarity results, resulting in even more desire for familiarity.
Probability of Choosing the Song
with the Son
Study 2: The Effect of Familiarity on Choice by Model
(controlling for like, cool, & regret)
Fig. 2 Study 2: the effect of
familiarity on choice by model
Two hundred and seventy-six students participated in this study. We manipulated
cognitive load by having participants memorize either 20 (high load) or 4 (low load)
words. Participants then chose between five radio stations (of their preferred genre of
music) that they could listen to while doing the task. The five stations were each
described with common radio marketing phrases indicating whether the station
played relatively familiar musi c or novel music (e.g., “The Hot Hits Station—we
play the hottest top 10 songs all day long!,”“New songs all day long—we play the
songs of tomorrow that you’ve never heard!”). Participants rated each station on 1–7
scales gauging their liking, familiarity, and potential for distraction (“how distracted they
would be by the songs on the station”). Then, they recalled their memorized number.
We ranked, within participant, the familiarity and likability of the songs for the playlists.
Participants’ radio station choice was significantly predicted by their predicted song
(1, n=276)=6.55, p<.05, above and beyond the effect of their anticipated
song liking. Controlling for liking, participants were still more likely to choose the radio
station they judged to play the most familiar music when they were in the high, M=.52
versus low, M=.38, cognitive load condition, χ
(1, n=276)=3.17, p=.075, affirming
Even under no load (Studies 1 and 2) and minimal load (the four word condition in
study 3) respondents chose familiar music, suggesting that the OSL for music is quite
low. Study 3 affirms that the OSL is low because when it is lowered further via
cognitive load, the preference for familiar music increased.
6 General discussion
In three studies, we examined the power of familiarity on music choice and showed
that fami liarity is a more important driver of music choice than more obvious, and
commonly tested, constructs such as liking and satiation (i.e., being “sick of”). We
find this relationship even though consumers do not expect it, and it is especially
strong when the usage situation already favors less stimulation, as it often does for
many music usage situations.
It is natural to wonder if these effects are reflected in the music market. To explore
this question, we collected and analyzed radio station data from Arbitron, which
measures radio audiences across the USA. We collected data from radio stations
playing the top ten formats (according to Arbitron’s Radio Today 2007 ) located
within the top 60 US markets for Fall 2008 (Arbitron 2008). We operationalized
familiarity by collecting song “spins” (the number of times a station played its top
songs in the current and prior week) for the top ten songs on each station. Although
not a perfect measure, we expected that more spins means more consumer familiarity.
We found a significant positive effect of number of spins on market share,
F(1,381)=6.17, p<.01. We replicated this finding by looking at the top ten songs
for the target week and the week prior and found the same positive relationship
between number of spins and market share, F(1,381)=4.78, p<.05. These market
results are consistent with our experimental findings and suggest that familiarity is a
major driver of actual music choice and market share.
Our results suggest that the emphasis on n ovelty in the music domain, by consumers
and people protesting the current state of the music business, is misplaced. In the
marketplace, and in our pilot study, consumers indicate that they want more novelty
when in fact their choices suggest that they do not. These findings add to the list of
unconscious preferences that keep consumers from being consciously aware of their
actual desires (e.g., Wilson 2009). When testing whether consumers would choose
particular music or a particular playlist, marketers would do well to b ypass con-
sumers’ notions of what they want, and to instead ask how familiar consumers are
with the music. Familiarity is as powerful as, and sometimes more powerful than, any
other measure of music preference in our studies. In addition, our results show that
asking for satiation measures is counterproductive, at least for predicting reduced
preference for music.
For music outlets with playlists, our results suggest the best strategy is to concentrate
primarily on familiar songs, even if consumers say they want more novelty. When a new
song is introduced, it should be played often (as the successful stations did in our actual
market data) and offered to consumers through promotions, free samples, and incidental
listening. For music outlets that allow the user to create a playlist, such as iTunes, our
results suggest that marketers should heavily promote and make familiar music, easy to
find for purchase, and should not emphasize unfamiliar music. Likewise, our results
predict the success of Apps such as Spotify and Pandora, which offer newly released
music that has many familiar elements, such as familiar artists, styles, and melodies.
6.2 Extensions and limitations
It would be useful to extend these results to other domains. We expect a powerful influence
of familiarity in other artistic categories other than music, such as the entertainment, food,
and the visual arts. Most popular movies include familiar actors and plots, and many
popular restaurants seem to serve essentially the same food, suggesting a low optimal
stimulation level in these domains as well.
Future research could further explore the relationship between OSL, familiarity , and
context. Familiar stimuli have been found to be preferred to novel stimuli when people are
focused on security (e.g., prevention focus or narrow categorization) as opposed to growth
(e.g., promotion focus or broad categorization; Gillebaart et al. 2012). P erhaps a preven-
tion focus reduces OSL because resources are needed to address whatever threat is being
prevented. In the case of music, listeners mayneedtheirresourcestopreventmistakesin
other tasks they perform while listening. If listeners were to switch to a growth focus,
perhaps by concentrating only on the music, they may open up resources to allow them to
explore more novel music.
Future research might combine our findings with the work on assortment and
variety, perhaps by addressing how consumers respond to the same song repeated
several times in a short time period or how they assemble playlists (Ratner et al. 1999;
Read and Loewenstein 1995). Our results show that consumers underestimate the
power of their familiarity for a song on choice, a finding that correlates with the
findings that consumers overestimate their desire for variety.
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