Scientists discover magical chords of pop

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The Abba group – LINDEBORG / SCANPIX SWEDEN / AFP

The magic ingredients of pop music are … A clever mix of uncertainty and surprise, according to researchers who made hundreds of tubes swallow hundreds of hits to discover the secrets.

The team of researchers analyzed statistically thousands of chord sequences (without the melodies and the lyrics), drawn from 745 pop tubes of the American Billboard from 1958 to 1991, of which Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da of the
Beatles Red red wine from UB40 and Knowing me, knowing you by
ABBA.

The reactions analyzed on the MRI

"It's fascinating that humans get pleasure from listening to a song just because of the order of the sounds," said Vincent Cheung of the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive Science and Brain in Germany, which conducted the study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

An algorithm of machine learning (automated learning) quantified the level of uncertainty and surprise of 80,000 chord suites, then had about 80 humans listen to a selection of pieces, while they were in an MRI scanner so that researchers observed their brains.

Genesis at the top of the pop

Scientists have observed that when participants were relatively sure about the next agreement, they would have fun if the following agreement were a surprise. And when they were unsure what to do next … They were having fun when the deal was not surprising. To gauge expectations and feelings, scientists observed the corresponding brain regions. Only the chords, not the melodies and the lyrics, were played because otherwise they would have risked waking memories more or less pleasant to the listeners, and contaminate the experience.

Could this data one day help a composer to find the magic formula for a tube? "It could be an important element to exploit, but it could not be the only thing to create a pop song", replies Vincent Cheung humbly. In the course of the experiment, the most noteworthy chord match was the Invisible Touch, by Genesis, in 1980.

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