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Teenage Brains Could Predict Pop Hits

In the future, a panel of teenagers could be deciding which songs make the cut, instead of a group of middle-aged music executives. An Emory University study suggests that recording the brain activity of teens while they are listening to new songs may help predict the popularity of those songs.

“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.

In 2006, Berns’ lab selected 120 unknown songs from MySpace, all of them by musicians without recording contracts. A group of 27 teens aged 12 to 17 listened to the songs while their neural reactions were recorded through functional magnetic resolution imaging, which is a special MRI scan that measures neural activity. The data was originally collected to study how peer pressure affects teenagers’ opinions. It wasn’t until three years later that Berns realized the teenagers were onto something. While watching an episode of “American Idol” with his daughter, Berns recognized the cover of “Apologize” by One Republic as one of the songs used in the study.

The team then measured the sales figures of the songs from 2007 to 2010, and realized there was a correlation between the brain responses in the teenagers and the number of songs sold. The brain responses could predict about one-third of the songs that would eventually go on to sell more than 20,000 units. Also, around 90 per cent of the songs that drew a weak response from the neural reward center of the teens eventually sold fewer than 20,000 units.

Berns cautions the discovery has limitations. The majority of the songs used in the study ended up being total flops, and only three of the songs sold more than 500,000 units, which is considered a hit by industry standards. Most importantly, the study subjects were all teenagers. Can they really predict the next hit Justin Bieber song, when teens make up only about 20 percent of music buyers? And considering that the best selling songs of all time on iTunes are ditties such as “Tik Tok” by Kesha and “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas, the more important question is: who’s buying this crap? I think that’s something Berns needs to investigate, aside from knowing if a teen will adopt Android or iPhone later in life.


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