Once more, while in the fMRI machine

The most interesting thing I learned yesterday at boot camp was that scientists might have discovered a neural predictor of a song’s success. Some years ago, G.S. Berns surfed myspace for little known artists and used their songs to contrast subjective reports of liking a song to activity in the ventral striatum while subjects were listening to the song (an area of the brain associated with preference and reward). It turns out the two come apart: the songs people claimed they liked best didn’t correlate with the songs that showed the largest effect in the striatum.

Fast forward 5 years: Berns was watching American Idol with his son, and to his surprise, one of the songs he had used in his study was being sung by one of the contestants. (The song was “apologize” by One Republic.) Berns decided to go back to his original set of songs and see which correlated best with the songs’ commercial success, subjective report or striatum activity.

Striatum activity was significantly more predictive of a song’s success than its subjective likability. In the article that resulted from the study, the authors conclude this way:
“…[I]t has been estimated that only 10% of new releases end up making a profit for a record label. Consequently, marketing and branding efforts tend to be minimal until a band shows signs of popularity. With more and more artists having access to quality production equipment and being able to release songs directly to the public, neuroimaging tools may have real utility to help labels decide how to invest limited marketing and branding resources.”

So the idea is that the record label can just stick a bunch of subjects in the fMRI, and then only invest money in songs that result in just enough striatum activity.

Here’s my problem with this suggestion: maybe songs that don’t result in high striatum activity are better songs by other measures. Maybe those songs are more creative, inspiring, complex, or challenging. It might even be that flooding the market with “apologize”-like ear worms would have a negative effect on our cultural intelligence.

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