Improving User Engagement through Musicology

I have been a Musicologist long before I had even heard of the term. Defined in its simplest form, Musicology is the thinking, reading and writing about music. This is different to the technical study of an actual composition of music but rather an understanding of the reasons why and when the composer wrote that music, and how it is perceived by­­ others.

Music has the unique power to captivate people on an emotional and psychological level and we are familiar with how songs can help us to recall certain memories, like the day you experienced your first kiss.

A big part of Musicology is understanding the context in which we humans incorporate music on a daily basis, both at a subconscious and conscious level — connecting music with our lived experiences.

“Music can move us to heights or depths of emotion. It can persuade us to buy something, or remind us of our first date. It can lift us out of depression when nothing else can. It can get us dancing to its beat. But the power of music goes much, much further. Indeed, music occupies more areas of our brain than language does — humans are a musical species”.

Excerpt from Musicophilia by Dr. Sacks, NYU

The interesting thing to note is that music is so much more than a vessel that enhances experiences and triggers memories. Science has already demonstrated what music can do for a human brain suffering from Alzheimer’s or a child’s brain that is in its early stages of development.

A survey conducted by Midem and Music Matters in 2009 across 13 countries, revealed that 63% of the respondents considered themselves passionate about music — only 6% indicated to not care about music. A 2007 Brandamp study from Millward Brown showed that music is the medium that most people would least like to live without (beating the internet, film, books and TV). From the same study group, 85% of respondents felt that music changed their mood.

It is evident that music plays a pivotal role in our lives — so by understanding how music actually “moves us to heights and depths of emotion”, we can make some assumptions as to why the majority of us still don’t feel comfortable paying for music streaming subscriptions today.

Streaming is still a relatively new medium and based on the law of diffusion of innovation, we have yet to reach that tipping point of mass adoption.

Another big contributing factor is that no streaming service provides a memorable experience.


We know that people will happily pay for experiences.

Live music ticket sales are soaring and people pay upwards of $100 to see their favourite band, because it is a lasting memory — so the value versus cost equation is a no brainer.

On the other hand, the value vs. cost of having access to all the music in the world for $9,99 a month is actually a bit harder to quantify for most. Why should I pay? What is the experience I am paying for?

Streaming services love to boast about having 30 million songs etc. but does anyone on this planet really care about having that much access? In one’s lifetime, an individual would only consume a tiny fraction of that. The real value is in knowing what to do with those 30 million songs and having an expert guide we can trust to find and recommend the best music for us.

The majority of streaming services focus on the “radio format” which is limiting the real underlying potential of creating amazing personalised music experiences.

Familiarity is playing it safe, but that seems to be the name of the game right now.

Discovery is a risky endeavour, but if it is done right, it will be the clear winner.

When I say “discovery”, I do not necessarily mean creating a playlist of 20 songs that a person has never heard of before. The actual goal is to have a person trust the selection that is being played regardless of whether the song is old, new, popular or from the B-side of an artist long since forgotten.

Many a time when I have had the debate about the importance of music, some would argue that “People aren’t fussed and are happy listening to the same songs over and over again and get on with it — this is why radio is still so popular”. Often they would back up their comments with random stats like “Spotify users only stream X% of the catalogue etc.”

This is where the DJ part of me rebels! At the very core of any good DJ lies the intrinsic ability to read the crowd.

The ability to understand your audience so well, that you can take them on any journey you wish, touching the heights and depths of their emotions — is extremely powerful.

Even more fascinating is that once you have created that trusted connection, you can play pretty much whatever you want and your captivated audience will eat it up.

You do not have to give a person the same 20 songs over and over again. Show them you understand them and gain their trust, so that you can take them on a journey which they will then be open to exploring with you. The same goes for a radio station or a curator.

Just think of an individual like John Peel. He wasn’t always right, but he was trusted in his knowledge and choice to create something unique and people just dug that.


So how do you create a highly personalised experience that is also scalable?

This is where Musicology can add a lot of value.

People love listening to new music, as long as it is provided in the context that is relevant and meaningful to them. The best way to do this is by involving a user and making them an integral part of the experience. Once you understand what they are about — the why and the when they listen to music, you will be able to provide them with a unique music experience over and over again.

Just think about the music in Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill. On their own, these soundtracks make no sense at all, filled with weird and obscure music. To people who have not seen the movies it would just be a sequence of random and strange songs — but for those of us that have seen the movies, these songs have context and are part of a story.

If you told me today what type of song you liked, I can guarantee you that I could find another 10 similar songs that you had never heard of before, that you would love. Again, this is a combination of understanding the when and the why of a person to identify the type of music listener they are.

This is by no means an easy task especially when you want to scale to X million users, but when you nail this type of engagement, I think people will keep coming back for more.

The sweet spot is getting a user to trust your platform, knowing that you will go out of your way to find the music they will love. It is a collaborative process, but by engaging the user to create their personalised music experience, they will give you their vote of confidence. These are the users that will be loyal, that will want to share your brand with the world but will also be happy to pay for that experience.