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Teenagers' brains could predict the pop hits of the future

Scanning the brain activity of teenagers while they listen could help pick future chart-toppers – but their own preferences are useless, a new study has found.

Strong brain activity
Strong brain activity
Image: Lidal-K via Flickr

RECORD COMPANIES COULD predict which songs will top the charts by scanning the brains of teenagers as they listen, a new study suggests.

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta found that when they played tunes which later became hits to subjects aged between 12 and 17, it provoked strong brain activity. Future flops, however, registered only weakly on the scan.

The findings come from a 2006 project in which neuroscientist Gregory Berns picked 120 unknown tracks from Myspace and played them to 27 teens while recording their reactions with an MRI scanner. Three years later that he realised one of the songs (Apologise, by One Republic) had become a hit when it was used on American Idol.

“I said, ‘Hey, we used that song in our study,’” Berns said. “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.”

Going back to the data, he found a relationship between increased brain activity and sales. “When we plotted the data on a graph, we found a ‘sweet spot’ for sales of 20,000 units,” Berns said. About one-third of those could have been predicted by the scans.

The teenagers were also asked to rate the tunes they heard. However, their own ratings were of no use in picking out the hits. Berns believes this could be because the teens’ statements were coloured by social factors.

“You have to stop and think, and your thoughts may be colored by whatever biases you have, and how you feel about revealing your preferences to a researcher,” he said, adding: “You really can’t fake the brain responses while you’re listening to the song. That taps into a raw reaction.”

Previous studies have shown that music can have a range of surprising physiological effects such as easing pain, speeding up heart rates and even lessening the effects of depression, according to Live Science.

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Michael Freeman

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