Study: Pop Songs Literally Get Stuck in Teens’ Heads

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Ever wonder why some songs are more popular than others?

Director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy Gregory Berns and economics research specialist Sara Moore have discovered there’s some science behind that phenomenon.

Their federally-funded study, published in the June 8th issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, found that the strength of brain activity in teens could predict which songs would sell 20,000 copies by Nielsen standards.  Likewise, the lab found that 90% of songs that received a weak neural response sold fewer than 20,000 copies.

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Berns and Moore found this correlation by having a focus group of 27 teens ages 12-17 — who make up 20% of music consumers — listen to 120 obscure tunes from unsigned artists on MySpace, while functional magnetic resolution imaging (fMRI) tracked their neural responses. Listeners also rated each song on a scale of 1-5, but how much teens liked certain songs did not jibe with future song sales.

In fact, the original purpose of this project was to study how peer pressure influences teens’ opinions.  But three years later, when Berns heard American Idol contestant Kris Allen belt out “Apologize” by OneRepublic — a song used in the study — he started to wonder whether his focus group could have predicted that song’s success.  So he compared the earlier neural data to sales figures of the songs from 2007 to 2010, and found that the neural data did seem to forecast how popular they would become.

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This pop music experiment is just the beginning in Berns’ broader quest to better understand how cultural trends emerge.

“I want to know where ideas come from, and why some of them become popular and others don’t. It’s ideas and the way that we think that determines the course of human history. Ultimately, I’m trying to predict history,” Berns said in a press release.

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