Though we have access to a seemingly limitless amount of new music each day, we keep coming back to songs or albums, mostly stuff we liked at college age.

It's common to prefer the familiar - even by college students who may self-identify as preferring new music. People pick familiar with even when they believe they would prefer less familiar music. It's one of the reasons why the Pandora algorithm is regarded so highly. Yet we often hear the complaint that radio stations are playing the same songs over and over - and even Pandora plays the same 50 or 100.

“In three studies, we examined the power of familiarity on music choice and showed that familiarity 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’ certain music,” says co-author Professor Joseph K. Goodman, in the Washington University business school, who did the work with Morgan Ward of Southern Methodist University and Julie Irwin of University of Texas at Austin. “Our results suggest that the emphasis on novelty in the music domain, by consumers and people often protesting the current state of the music business, is probably misplaced,” Goodman says. “In the marketplace, and in our pilot study, consumers say that they want more novelty when in fact their choices suggest they do not.”

So they did surveys using Mechanical Turk and found what you would expect; everyone said stations should play more new music. Then in a follow-up students rated songs - and they preferred the familiar ones. Even college students, who overwhelmingly claim to prefer new music to radio top 40, picked familiar songs.

Goodman suggests that based on the findings marketers should continue to promote what is familiar to consumers, even though it might not be the most liked. In addition, managers and artists should not underestimate the power of familiarity when promoting their music.  It's a $30 billion industry so plenty of room for everyone to prosper.

Obviously there is a place for new music. People find new songs they enjoy all of the time. It seems that people most prefer familiar music when they are busy working or doing cognitively demanding tasks.

Goodman says that the success of services like Pandora and Spotify will continue because they not only play personalized familiar favorites, but they also introduce people to new music with familiar musical elements.

Citation: Morgan K. Ward, Joseph K. Goodman, Julie R. Irwin, 'The same old song: The power of familiarity in music choice', Mark Lett May 29th, 2013 DOI 10.1007/s11002-013-9238-1 (PDF - WUSTL)