What Makes a Song Commercially Successful? Ask Your Brain

By Joseph Castro | June 14, 2011 12:27 pm

What’s the News: It’s always a gamble when a record company decides to sign a new band, as they can never truly predict which artists will be successful. Sometimes marketing firms will use focus groups to guess at future musical gold mines, but conflicting motivations, among other things, can hamper results. Now, researchers have found that while you may not be able to consciously pinpoint which songs will be hits, your brain just might.

How the Heck:

  • In a study conducted in 2006, Emory neuroeconomist Gregory Berns and his team had teenagers listen to 15-second clips of 120 obscure songs from unsigned artists on Myspace. The researchers recorded participants’ neural reactions using fMRI, and the teenagers rated their preferences for each song on a scale of one to five.
  • Three years later, while watching American Idol with his children, Berns realized that one of the songs in his study became a hit: “Apologize” by OneRepublic. “I started to wonder if we could have predicted that hit,” Berns said in a prepared statement.
  • Berns and neuroscientist Sara Moore went back and compared the brain data with 2010 sales figures of 87 of the songs. They found that strong responses in the nucleus accumbens accurately predicted about 1/3 of the songs whose albums went on to sell more than 20,000 copies, and weak responses predicted 90 percent of tunes that sold fewer than 20,000 copies.
  • Interestingly, the participants’ song ratings did not correlate with sales figures.

Not So Fast:

  • The experiment may not be representative of the entire population because of its small sample size (only 27 people).
  • While the brain research looked at reactions to individual songs, the sales figures included album and compilation purchases, rather than just singles.
  • CalTech neuroeconomist Antonio Rangel said that while the study shows how neuroimaging may be useful in addition to consumer surveys and focus groups, the method is not yet ready to be a stand-alone marketing tool. “I would not invest in a company based on this” (via Science).

References: Gregory S. Berns, Sara E. Moore. A neural predictor of cultural popularity. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2011; DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2011.05.001

Image: Flickr / Kara Allyson

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: brain, fMRI, music
  • Gregg

    27 people and only teenagers? Sorry, this isn’t science. This isn’t even worthy of a newspaper poll.

  • Glidingpig

    Sadly, this will indicate sales, those teeny boopers are the ones paying for the crappy music that gets put out there.

    It looks like Gregg, from the write up, that the original research had a different goal, and this was just a off chance hit.

  • Grant

    It would be interesting to see if we can find out certain components of music that are more likely to stimulate the nucleus accumbens than others. i’d love to see a genetic algorithm that bases it’s adjustments on fMRI images alone. hell, i’d even volunteer to sit in an MRI and listen to “music” for a few hours.

    -The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…” ~Isaac Asimov

  • http://WRITEASONG.COM Wayne G. Caddigan

    I THINK THE HUMAN BRAIN REACTS TO STIMLUS IN OUR OWN BRAINS FOR ANY SURVEY
    NOT JUST FOR MUSICM ALONE. THIS TYPE OF DATA GATHERING NEEDS TO BE EXPANDED TO AN HIGHER NUMBER OF QUESTIONEERS BEFORE YOUR COMMENTS CAN
    BE FOUND SATISFATORLY.

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