Music defines people and places, movements and generations.

But what if you could use music to measure a moment in human history like the Occupy movement, or chart an artist's career from explosion to obscurity across the globe?

A McMaster University research team is setting out to do just that — armed with 20 million song downloads.

'In the end, this is a story about all of us.'—Matthew Woolhouse, McMaster researcher

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.

"It's a vast ocean of data," Woolhouse told CBC Hamilton. "And we're going on a fishing trip."

Starting in January, he plans to begin pouring over the database of downloads looking for what he calls "behavioral data."

Then he'll start looking for patterns.

Looking for human stories

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 will be much greater when his lab opens at the university.

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McMaster researcher Matthew Woolhouse is heading up a project to study Nokia's worldwide music downloads. (Supplied)

"We're interested in the human stories," Woolhouse said. His team will be looking for a lot of things — like which countries are more musically "opened minded," or which countries are forward thinking and have their finger on the musical pulse.

"Is there a country that's just ahead of the curve for finding new artists?" he asked. "And is the life and death of an artist symmetrical?"

"These are the sorts of things we're looking for."

They'll also be looking at how political changes affect music consumption across the globe, during massive movements like the Arab Spring.

He'll even be able to tell which countries have higher rates of insomnia, depending on their instances of late-night downloading.

"It's truly looking at music on a global scale," he said.

Privacy and safety

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.

The team isn't going in with any preconceptions about what they might find. But they are excited to get started because of the far reaching scope of music, worldwide.

"In the end, this is a story about all of us."