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Teen brains can predict hit pop songs, study shows

The adolescent brain might not be such a teenage wasteland after all.

Recent research suggests that the activity in teen brains may have some Nostradamus-like qualities when it comes to predicting the hits or misses of popular music.

In a small study, scientists recruited 27 adolescents, ages 12 to 17. They asked each kid to listen to 60 15-second clips of songs from largely unknown artists found on MySpace. The clip included either the hook or chorus of each song, and volunteers only listened to tunes from their three favorite musical categories, which ranged from country, rock and indie to hip-hop, blues and metal.

Researchers recorded the teens' reactions to each song using brain-imaging scans, and they also asked participants to rate how much they liked the music on a scale of one to five stars. By using unfamiliar musicians and vocals, scientists hoped to get a raw response, as if teens were hearing the track for the first time.

For three years after the scanning took place, the scientists gathered data on each song's sales figures to see which ones were fan faves or flops.

Although the teens' tastes in music from their likability ratings showed no link to a song's commercial success, their brain scans told another story: Activity in the ventral striatum -- the brain's reward region -- was predictive of future sales figures and popularity.

"We found that when an area of the brain associated with reward and anticipation was active while listening to the song, chances were greater that the song would eventually go on to sell more than 20,000 units," says Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, a neuroeconomist and director of Emory University's Center for Neuropolicy.

While the teens brains displayed a modest knack for picking out songs that would sell at least 20,000 units -- about one-third of the brain images could predict this -- they were even more accurate at identifying failures: Nearly 90 percent of the songs that showed a weak response in the brain's reward region had tepid sales.

Most of the study songs were duds with dismal sales, but three were industry hits (500,000 units sold) including "Apologize" by OneRepublic and two country cuts, "Don't Laugh at Me" by Mark Wills and "Drink, Swear, Steal, and Lie" by Michael Peterson. But none of these tunes were in the teens' top 10 in eliciting brain activation so they weren't exactly hit-predicting machines.

"The fact that there was any predictive power at all was surprising," says Berns, the study's lead author. "There are so many songs released each year and so few hits, that the odds were stacked against us."

The study appears in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

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