From Britney Spears to the Bieb, it's clear that teens' not-quite-developed brains influence who becomes a pop star. Now a new study shows that studying kids' neural reactions can predict if a song will become a hit, even if they say they hate it.
Emory University researchers came upon these findings by accident. In 2006, neuroeconomist Gregory Berns set out to study how peer pressure affects teenagers' opinions, according to EurekAlert. To do this, his lab found 120 songs from relatively unknown bands on MySpace. Subjects ages 12 to 17 listened to the songs for the first time while their brain function was recorded with a MRI. Later they were asked to rate each song on a scale of one to five.
In 2009, Berns heard one of the songs, "Apologize" by One Republic, performed by Kris Allen on American Idol. He says:
"I said, 'Hey, we used that song in our study,' ... It occurred to me that we had this unique data set of the brain responses of kids who listened to songs before they got popular. I started to wonder if we could have predicted that hit."
When compared to sales figures, Berns found that there was a correlation between the subjects' brain responses and how many songs were sold. Only three of the songs used in the study went on to become hits, selling more than 500,000 copies. The subjects responses were able to predict about one third of the songs than went on to sell more than 20,000 units, but the results were clearer for flops. 90% of the songs that the subjects had a weak response to went on to sell less than 20,000 copies.
It may make sense that the songs people disliked didn't go on to become hits, but the weird part is that the teens didn't know they hated them. The subjects' ratings didn't match up to their brain responses. The teens may have felt generous when rating the songs, but Berns says, "you really can't fake the brain responses while you're listening to the song. That taps into a raw reaction."
The study is very limited: Teens only make up 20% of music customers and the study only involved 27 people, which doesn't even amount to one overcrowded classroom. (Not to mention that illegal downloads may have skewed sales figures.) However, Berns says this is a "baby step" in his larger goal of understanding "where ideas come from, and why some of them become popular and others don't." It should also be of interest to recording industry executives, who are undoubtedly already on the hunt for teens to hook up to scientifically unsound hit-predicting brain scanners.
Image via Raisa Kanareva/Shutterstock.