Unlocking The Science Behind Hit Songs

It’s something that has happened to us a lot of times. We turn on the radio, or hit shuffle, or open whatever music streaming device we have, listen to a new song, and immediately get a shot of dopamine and experience pleasure whenever our predictions as to how the song would sound are met. Soon after, the song gets stuck in our heads for days, even weeks, as do countless others, which would earn the song “hit” status.

These days, most songs are meant to be just like that, and science can easily explain the brain mechanism behind it. Here’s what you need to hear (no pun intended).

Science Behind “Hit Songs”

Recently, a group of researchers used machine learning to understand why a lot of music are pleasurable to the ears, and why it’s that way in the first place. To do this, the researchers built a statistical-learning model, which was then trained to analyze more than 80,000 chords from around 745 Billboard pop songs from the U.S. From this, the team was able to determine whether pleasantness could be predicted by the uncertainty concerning the upcoming chord, or the surprise experienced upon hearing it when least expected. Then, in order to make sure factors like memories that are associated with older songs are ruled out, the analyzed songs are stripped of original material like lyrics and melody. Only the chords remain, which would make them non-recognizable in a lot of ways.

From there, the team discovered two patterns that are associated with the now-naked chord progressions: First, highly uncertain but not surprising, and second, those with low uncertainty and high surprise, both of which send pleasure signals to our brains.

“In other words, what is crucial is the dynamic interplay between two temporally dissociable aspects of expectations: the anticipation beforehand, and the surprise afterwards,” Vincent Cheung, the lead scientist of the research, said.

After studying brain activity via MRI, they also found that uncertainty and surprise is associated with changes in emotion.

“On one hand, our results could be applied to assist composers or even computers in writing music. On the other, algorithms could be developed to predict musical trends and how well a song would do based on its structure. The possibilities are endless,” Cheung added.

Woman recording song The physical sensations felt after listening to your favorite song are so powerful they can evoke a “skin orgasm.” Photo courtesy of Shutterstock