Using Science To Predict Pop Music Hits


Why can’t science be fun?

I mean, sure – I’d love to see cancer cures, and schizophrenia cures and even more on the promising telomeric theory of living forever.  But sometimes, we learn a lot of things that seem – if not useless, then inconsequential –and they prove invaluable later on in ways we can never predict.

Would you like to know in advance if a pop song is going to be a big hit?  I’m sure some people would.  Believe it or not, that has been the topic of recent research. Okay, so it is a small study.  Who would fund further research on this one? There is a certain part of the tender adolescent brain (remember, our brains don’t get completely myelinated until age 28.  That means we do not have all the fatty-insulation around the nerves to conduct impulses) that reacts in a very interesting way to music. Based mostly on animal studies, the ventral striatum seems to be associated with emotions that generate behavior.  This differentiates it from the dorsal striatum, which has mostly sensorimotor control.   Makes sense.  Although they are similar, these two different types of behavior are slightly different.  Sometimes we decide what we want to do by what we feel physically.  If it is too cold, we go for a jacket.  The sensory input probably goes through at least a couple of brain centers, like thermoregulation.

Then there is what I would consider an “emotional decision,”  like, for example, what song you enjoy. As the study shows, it is not a clear and exact indicator of what is going to become a hit.  But you had better believe, that if there is any chance of getting some edge, this line of research is going to be pressing forward. It is more interesting to look at this information in the context of what is known already about the function of the ventral tegmentum. It is part of something called the “pleasure circuit,” something that “lights up” after basic human needs have been met — needs like food, shelter, and (most would hope, a bit down the line for adolescents), sex.   The ventral tegmentum communicates a lot with the nearby nucleus accumbens.  This means secretion of dopamine which, among other things, is associated with pleasure. The dopamine secretion system goes pretty crazy with things like addictions. It makes you wonder just how good adolescents are at taking care of basic human needs — especially those who have wild, orgiastic experiences listening to music. One example of the kind of research that you can do in animals and not in humans is a study of chronic infusion of nicotine in rats.  This produces some real gene expression changes in adolescent but not adult rats.  This would suggest that adolescents may be the people most susceptible to — nicotine addictions. I suspect the cigarette companies had already figured out this one years ago. The fun part, for me at least, is taking the knowledge of the brain, and trying to put it together like a puzzle-box.  Sometimes, I just love to imagine what neurotransmitters are doing inside my patients’ skulls — and my own.

Sometimes I just stroke the sterling silver replica of the dopamine molecule that I always wear around my neck in between the acetylcholine and serotonin molecules, and they are only a few of the players. And sometimes I think the poets do it better than the scientists.

As  Hamlet told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in Act II Scene II,

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in
Reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving
how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals!

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