US singer and actor Jack Black from the rock band Tenacious D performs during Rock in Rio festival; scientists say that the world's greatest songs have the right combination of uncertainty and surprise Photo: AFP/File
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Music by the numbers: Scientists reveal a secret to great song writing

13 Comments
By Issam AHMED

What makes some music so enjoyable, and can science help us engineer the perfect pop song?

A group of researchers who statistically analyzed tens of thousands of chord progressions in classic U.S. Billboard hits say they have found the answer, and it lies in the right combination of uncertainty and surprise.

Vincent Cheung of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science in Germany who led the study told AFP the data could even assist songwriters trying to craft the next chart topper.

"It is fascinating that humans can derive pleasure from a piece of music just by how sounds are ordered over time," he said.

Composers know intuitively that expectancy plays a big part in how much pleasure we derive from music, but the exact relationship has remained hazy.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, Cheung and co-authors selected 745 classic US Billboard pop songs from 1958 and 1991, including "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" by The Beatles, UB40's "Red red wine" and ABBA's "Knowing me, knowing you."

They then used a machine learning model to mathematically quantify the level of uncertainty and surprise of 80,000 chord progressions relative to one another, and played a small selection to around 80 human test subjects connected to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scanners.

The scientists found that when the test subjects were relatively certain about what chord to expect next, they found it pleasant when they were instead surprised.

Conversely, when individuals were uncertain about what to expect next, they found it pleasurable when subsequent chords weren't surprising.

Musical pleasure itself was reflected in the brain's amygdala, hippocampus and auditory cortex -- regions associated with processing emotions, learning and memory, and processing sound, respectively.

Contrary to previous research, the team found that the nucleus accumbens -- a region that processes reward expectations and had been thought to play a role in musical pleasure -- only reflected uncertainty.

Cheung explained that he and colleagues decided to strip the music down to just chords because lyrics and melody might remind listeners of associations attached to songs, and so contaminate the experiment.

But, he added, the technique could equally be applied to investigate melodies, and he is also interested in understanding whether the findings remain similar for other genres like jazz and for non-Western musical traditions such as those from China and Africa.

Nor does future research need to be confined to music: "When we look at somebody doing a very cool dance move, that's also linked to expectancy," said Cheung, as is joke-telling.

The study falls broadly into the relatively new field of computational musicology, which sits at the intersection of science and art.

So could data help unlock the magic formula for song writing?

"It is an important feature that could be exploited but it wouldn't be the only thing that could be used to create a pop song," said Cheung, cautioning that the work looked at pleasurable chord progressions in isolation.

As for the study, the team found the three highest-rated chord progressions they played to test subjects appeared in "Invisible Touch" by 1980s English band Genesis, 1968 hit "Hooked On A Feeling" by BJ Thomas, and Beatles classic "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

© 2019 AFP

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

13 Comments
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The scientists found that when the test subjects were relatively certain about what chord to expect next, they found it pleasant when they were instead surprised.

Conversely, when individuals were uncertain about what to expect next, they found it pleasurable when subsequent chords weren't surprising.

Makes sense. Also applies to romantic situations.

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Interesting, and it did give me a chuckle as I’ve always and absolutely hated UB40's "Red red wine" while absolutely loving ABBA's "Knowing me, knowing you."

And why Jack Black?

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Fizzbit - And why Jack Black?

Because Jack White was unavailable.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The Jack Black reference is actually quite clever

When he was playing with the duo Tenacious D they had a humorous song called “Tribute” which was a tribute to “the greatest song in the world.”

A funny video, too.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Ig Nobel Prize coming up.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

this is not the best comment in the world; this is just a tribute.

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Try that algorithm with intellectually challenging music, like jazz, rather than predictable consumer-friendly commoditized pap. That's why jazz evolved, developed its own language, and left predictable, anodyne Broadway show tunes, and even the blues, in its wake.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

That's why jazz evolved, developed its own language, and left predictable, anodyne Broadway show tunes, and even the blues, in its wake.

Nice! Although, I'll happily listen to all the above. Depends on the mood, etc. I couldn't initially get my head around Jazz - especially some of the more er, individual stuff like Sun Ra but I persevered and realized that it doesn't matter if you don't "get it". Just allow yourself to surrender to the sounds. It's just music.

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Depends on the mood, etc. I couldn't initially get my head around Jazz - especially some of the more er, individual stuff like Sun Ra but I persevered and realized that it doesn't matter if you don't "get it". 

Not all "intellectually challenging" music is something you need to like. I can listen to something because I find it interesting, fascinating even, but it is engaging a different part of the brain than the music I play again and again for pleasure. Somebody like Scott Walker, for example. His music is way out there and most people would turn it off after the first minute. Yet, it's very creative and engaging in a weird way. David Bowie thought so too. He stole a lot of his ideas and repackaged them into something easier to listen to. Both are fine. But I usually prefer listening to (and playing) music that comes from the heart rather than the brain.

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And they have software to write fiction novels. And you know what? The human element is missing. Software can copy but not actually create. When musicians create another good riff the software will copy that?

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The progression being written about is the I VI IV V7; probably the most dominant chord progression in pop music. As for the uncertainty of jazz - classic jazz is every bit as structured as pop. Improvisation largely occurs under a set of known rules, with even the most 'outside' licks generally resolving to the expected. Also, Neil Diamond wrote Red, Red, Wine (Not UB40).

One wonders where modern hip hop fits into all of this? The melodic content is quite restricted now and the progressions are often as simple as a I V or just a I IV.

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The Songwriting Magic Formula already exists how to compose instant hit vocal melodies with the backing chords at the same time watch the video below to see it in action there are two excellent examples, one halfway through and another near the end.

https://vimeo.com/367372385

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=the+songwriting+magic+formula&ref=nb_sb_noss

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Not all "intellectually challenging" music is something you need to like. I can listen to something because I find it interesting, fascinating even, but it is engaging a different part of the brain than the music I play again and again for pleasure. Somebody like Scott Walker, for example. His music is way out there and most people would turn it off after the first minute. 

Are we talking late period Scott Walker? Sure, not everyone's cuppa. But I like to be challenged, as well as relaxed. I don't necessarily see Walker or Sun Ra as "intellectually" challenging - just different approaches to music. I like to give music a chance. For instance, it wasn't until about 20 years after ABBA became a thing that I finally appreciated their perfect pop craft... far too long, on my part :-)

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