What Makes a Song Commercially Successful? Ask Your Brain

By Joseph Castro
Jun 14, 2011 9:27 PMNov 20, 2019 3:59 AM


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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

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