Can Brain Scans Predict Music Sales?

From an article in Science, one study indicates that the reactions of teenage music listener’s brains may be better at predicting what songs will be a hit than by simply asking them which they like best.

Two years ago, Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist at Emory University in Atlanta, was on the couch with his kids watchingAmerican Idol. One of the contestants sang the melancholy hit song “Apologize” by the alternative rock band OneRepublic, and something clicked in Berns’s mind.

He’d used the song a few years earlier in a study on the neural mechanisms of peer pressure, in this case, how teenagers’ perceptions of a song’s popularity influence how they rate the song themselves. At the time, OneRepublic had yet to sign its first record deal. A student in Bern’s lab had pulled a clip of “Apologize” from the band’s MySpace page to use in the study. When Berns heard the song on American Idol, he wondered whether anything in the brain scan data his team had collected could have predicted it would become a hit.

To find out what had become of the [120 random unsigned songs they picked for their study two years before], the lab bought a subscription to Nielsen SoundScan, a service that tracks music sales.

Intriguingly, the brain scan data predicted commercial success better than the subjects’ likeability ratings, which did not correlate with sales. “What is new and interesting about this study is that brain signals predict sales in a situation where the ratings of the participants don’t.”