Teen Brain Study Accurately Predicts Hit Pop Songs

Will the music of the future be pre-planned to be popular?. George Rudy/Shutterstock

Could future versions of Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga be predicted just by looking at the brain scan of a teenager? A new brain study out of Emory University suggests that the answer may be "yes," according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

The research, which began as a study of how peer pressure affects teenagers’ opinions, suggests that the science of pop music might be nothing more than simple brain science. It turns out that the musical tastes of teenagers, long a mystery to parents, might not be so difficult to predict after all.

"We have scientifically demonstrated that you can, to some extent, use neuroimaging in a group of people to predict cultural popularity," said Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist and director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy.

The findings are most surprising in their simplicity. Activity in one particular neural "sweet spot," as revealed by a functional magnetic resonance image, or fMRI, could predict about one-third of songs that would eventually go on to sell at least 20,000 copies. Predicting which songs would flop was even easier. When a song registered a weak response in the musical sweet spot, it had about a 90 percent chance of selling fewer than 20,000 copies.

Moreover, usually brain studies like this are limited because they can only predict the preferences or choices of the individual who was scanned. But the Emory study's results go a step further: they accurately predict a cultural phenomenon across an entire population just by looking at the brain activity of a small group of people. Teenagers may not be quite so individualistic as they like to portend!

For the experiment, scientists selected about 120 songs from random MySpace pages. All of the songs chosen were from relatively unknown artists, none of whom had recording contracts at the time of the study, so it was unlikely that any of the subjects in the study had heard the songs before. The 27 research subjects, aged from 12 to 17, were then instructed to listen to the songs while their neural reactions were recorded through fMRI. They were also asked to rate each song on a scale of one to five.

The songs were then tracked over a three-year period to determine their commercial success. The vast majority of the songs chosen for the study turned out to be flops. Three of the songs, though, eventually went on to become genuine hits, selling at least 500,000 units. One song, "Apologize" by One Republic, was sung by a contestant on "American Idol."

Although the study does have some limitations (namely, it is derived from a small sample size), the strong correlation between certain kinds of teen brain activity and the commercial success of songs stands out.

"My long-term goal is to understand cultural phenomena and trends," Berns said. "I want to know where ideas come from, 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. Ultimately, I’m trying to predict history."

The results could eventually revolutionize the recording industry and be of interest to record labels in search of the next big pop star. Who knows, perhaps someday the best replacement for Simon Cowell will turn out to be an fMRI machine.