Neurologist strikes a chord with what makes a hit
08 June 2020 | Article

Neurologist strikes a chord with what makes a hit

Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yangkee’s 2017 hit song Despacito (Despacito quiero respirar tu cuello despacito) was YouTube’s most streamed music video of the last decade, with over 6.5 billion views. What’s so captivating about this Latino music that it topped the Billboard chart for a record-equalling 16 weeks?

Research led by neurologist Vincent Cheung (Croucher Scholarship 2015), a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, suggests that the reason involves the right combination of uncertainty and surprise.

When we hear a song for the first time, our brain automatically makes predictions about what sound will come next, based on music we have heard in the past. We experience pleasure when our expectations are sometimes met, but not all the time.

With functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and machine learning, the team found two distinct patterns associated with chord pleasantness: those with low uncertainty and high surprise, or the opposite, highly uncertain but not surprising.

Uncertainty refers to the lack of clear expectation on upcoming chords before hearing; while surprise arises when the actual chord is different from our expectation. If the participant was sure what was coming next (low uncertainty) but the song unexpectedly deviated and surprised them, they found that pleasant. However, if the chord progression was harder to predict (high uncertainty) but the actual chord that arrived did not surprise them, they also found the stimuli pleasant.

This research could have direct relevance for the music industry. “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,” he added.

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