Teen Brains Predict Music Hits

We’ve all been there—snapping our fingers to a tune in our head, unable to get passed that one snippet of melody no matter how hard we try. Researchers now feel that the link between popular songs and brain function may be stronger than what was previously believed.

What if your brain knew more about what songs could be potential hits, over your personal feelings for that song?

Researchers headed by Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist and director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy, believe that they have found a connection between teenage brain functions and popular music. In a sense, they suppose that teenage brain activity can predict (perhaps, subconsciously) what songs, from a relatively unknown list, are more likely to become hits.

“I want to know where ideas come from,” Berns explains, “and why some of them become popular and others don’t.  It’s ideas and the way that we think that determines the course of human history.”

In the study which first began in 2006, 27 teens with ages ranging from 12 to 17 were asked to listen to 60 15-second song clips found on the MySpace pages of unknown artists. The sound clips encompassed a variety of musical styles like country, rock, indie, hip hop, metal, and blues to avoid circumstantial snags.  The teen’s brains were then monitored by using brain image scanning technology. Functional magnetic resolution imaging (fMRI) was also put into use to help measure the teens’ neurological responses.  As if this were not enough, the teens were also asked to rate these songs by providing a simple score of 1-5 stars per song.

At first, the test was to show the effectiveness of peer pressure among teens, however, years later that focus would change.

Three years after the initial tests, Berns was surprised when he heard that one of the tested songs (“Apologize” by the band OneRepublic) was a hit being belted on the show American Idol. Seeing how the craze grew around a relatively unknown artist (at the time when the study commenced), Berns decided to hit his research once again

What he found was that activity in both the orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum of the brain (which is the “reward” center of the brain) rose much higher for songs that would eventually have higher sales down the road.  Other unknown songs that would eventually catch on were country songs—“Don’t Laugh at Me” by Mark Wills and “Drink, Swear, Steal, and Lie” by Michael Peterson.

About one-third of the brain images were correct in “choosing” what songs would eventually do well in sales. But as it turns out, the teen’s subconscious response was much more accurate in picking what songs would not do well. Of all the teens and songs tested, there was an astounding 90% success rate in finding the songs that would not pick up in popularity, and were to become—excuse the term—“misses.”

As a side note, the teens 1-5 ranking had no real connection to either brain activity or music sales. Instead, it acted as a way to show that the brain was acting almost as a separate entity, being more accurate with its predictions, without the teen’s knowledge.

Although this evidence is not definitive, Berns and company believe that the results shown are still incredible. “The fact that there was any predictive power at all was surprising,” states Berns, “There are so many songs released each year and so few hits, that the odds were stacked against us.”

And even though the odds may have been against him, Berns is still overcome with the feeling that this is just a beginning step. With more tests and surveys like this one, he hopes that patterns in cultural popularity will begin to emerge.  

Photo Credit: dhs.gov/files/programs/gc_1242652643060.shtm

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