Back in 2006, teenagers listed to clips from 120 unknown artists as part of a scientific study. One of those artists happened to be future American Idol winner Kris Allen. Could this study have predicted his future success?
That's what Emory University researcher Gregory Berns wanted to find out. He had originally taken the songs from random MySpace pages (this was 2006, after all) and played snippets for the teenagers to see how their brains reacted to pop music. Three years later, when he heard Kris Allen performing on American Idol, Berns realized he had stumbled onto a unique opportunity.
"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."
To do that, he went back to the original data and looked for any correlations between the responses in the teens' brains and how the various songs performed in the charts between 2007 and 2010. There was some relationship - the brain scans overwhelmingly showed more activity when listening to future hits than to songs that achieved no success, which Berns says speaks to how music "taps into a raw reaction" in the brain.
That said, these brain scans weren't a perfect prophet. Only three of the songs used in the study went on to sell 500,000 copies, which is generally held up as the industry standard for a hit song. None of those songs were among the top ten in terms of activating the reward centers of the teenagers' brains. Still, of the ten top neural-activating songs, five of them did go on to sell 50,000 copies, which isn't too shabby.
What's even more interesting is that the brain scans were a much better predictor of future success than were the teenagers' actual responses. Berns explains why these were probably unreliable:
"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."
This study only looked at the responses of 27 teenagers, so it can't exactly be considered a robust study. But Berns thinks he's onto something with this, and a future study that features a larger, more diverse group of participants could prove to have far more predictive power.