Columbia Bizcast: Professor Michael Mauskapf

“There’s a trade-off between being similar and being different,” says the assistant professor, whose research reveals how pop hits find a “sweet spot” for optimal distinctiveness.

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What makes an idea go viral, a song become a hit, or a startup turn into a stock-listed powerhouse?

It often happens, according to Assistant Professor Michael Mauskapf, because of an optimal mix of oldness and newness. Be it a Billboard No. 1 or a blockbuster business idea, the concept catches on because it’s similar enough to be recognizable but different enough to be edgy.

“If your goal is commercial success and widespread adoption, you don’t want to be radically different,” Mauskapf says in this episode of Columbia Bizcast, which delves into his widely cited research paper into what makes pop music popular. Featured in the Economist, New York Post, and Quartz, along with Ideas at Work, the paper dissects the sonic attributes of six decades of songs from the Billboard Hot 100 to answer the question, “What makes a hit?” 

“There’s a trade-off between being similar and being different,” says Mauskapf, who is himself an orchestral trumpeter with dual doctorates in management and musicology; he teaches the MBA course Foundations of Entrepreneurship, an overview of the concepts and skills needed for both entrepreneurs and those who want to act entrepreneurially. “Novel is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being innovative.”

About the researcher

Michael Mauskapf

Michael Mauskapf is an Assistant Professor of Management at Columbia Business School, where he studies the dynamics of creativity, innovation, and success in cultural...

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