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Surprise is key to music hit-making, researchers say

August 11, 2021, 10:33 PM UTC

A new study in the scientific journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience finds that, over the decades, people tend to prefer newness and variety in music. In an analysis of Billboard top hits spanning from 1958 to 2019, researchers determined that the trend holds true not just for individuals over a lifetime, but population-wide over generations.

People crave constant novelty, in other words. Chart-topping tracks tend to demonstrate more “harmonic surprise” over time, the authors say. This means recent hits tend to employ more unique, unanticipated sets of chords, on average, than oldies. Think Nirvana versus Chuck Berry, as Ars Technica points out.

The results indicate that listeners like music that breaks with convention. That tendency toward unpredictability has “to be more pronounced over time to get the same effect,” the scientists explain, a conclusion that lends support for a phenomenon they call the “inflationary surprise hypothesis.”

Here is how the authors describe that trend at the intersection of popularity and the creative process.

Successful musicians from the present use chords that are surprising not just for the current moment but also relative to the past. These successful musicians also keep introducing new chords. Consequently, the probability distribution of chords is ever changing, such that musicians must create new surprise to accomplish the same level of preference, leading to an inflationary effect.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that humans look—and fall—for novelty. As people’s tastes acclimate to new experiences, they yearn for more extreme versions to get their fix—like drug use. Examples abound across food (hotter hot sauces), sex (raunchier pornography), and beliefs (falling down a rabbit hole of extremist views). Blame the brain’s dopamine centers.

One must be careful not to deviate too far outside people’s comfort zones, though. In Charles Duhigg’s excellent 2012 book, The Power of Habit, he describes the initially cold way radio audiences received the hip-hop duo Outkast’s 2003 hit “Hey Ya!”—at first, the song was just too weird for people. Disc jockeys across the nation warmed people up to the track by sandwiching it between lighter fare, like Celine Dion and lukewarm rockers Maroon 5. Once people became more familiar with the song, they couldn’t shake it. (Shake, shake it.)

I would love to know, more granularly, how music-streaming services—and video streaming services, for that matter—are affecting people’s tastes today. With so much content available at our earlobe-tips, is humanity fragmenting? Are we diverging into niche fandoms at an accelerating rate? And if that’s the case, why do some chord progressions remain, perennially, so popular, and why do people complain about all pop music sounding the same?

Personally, I find myself always seeking new, expectation-defying tunes. I like to tell people my favorite song is the one I haven’t heard yet. Right now, I’m listening to this banger by Childish Gambino.

What’s on your playlist?

Robert Hackett
@rhhackett
robert.hackett@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

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WFH pay. The tech industry has been most lenient in letting employees work from home permanently after the pandemic. But the moves do come at a cost. Googlers joining the work-from-home brigade, for instance, are likely to see pay cuts, Reuters reported Tuesday. Some of those could reach as high as 25% for employees previously based in the San Francisco area who shifted to remote work in a still-pretty-expensive market like Lake Tahoe.

COIN makes coin. Cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase blew away analyst expectations Tuesday with its second-quarter earnings report. Revenue hit $2.23 billion (versus an expectation of $1.78 billion), adjusted earnings per share totaled $3.45 (analysts expected a measly $2.33). And quarterly net profits were up 4,900% year over year. Underscoring the jump? Volatility in crypto prices and mounting buy-in from investors. 

Folding phones. No, we're not going to be talking about the Motorola Razrs of yore unfortunately. But folding phones are back: Samsung has taken its long-awaited Galaxy Z Flip 3 and Galaxy Z Fold 3 public. Priced at $1,000, the South Korean tech giant's latest offerings mark a big bet on what the future of phones will look like at a time when many say their current devices are just too big and not showing any sign of shrinking down soon. 

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This edition of Data Sheet comes courtesy of Declan Harty.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Soccer tries to take on Facebook. For more than two years, Europe's Football Association, the Premier League, the English Football League, and the Professional Footballers' Association have had a Facebook problem.

Game after game and season after season, Black players within their leagues had faced mounting racist abuse from users on the platform. So, as The New York Times chronicled this week, officials from the leagues sat down with the social network in early 2019. And then again. And again. But Facebook has continually failed to meet the leagues in the middle, often suggesting that it was on the players to report instances of racist speech. Even then, though, it's still up in the air as to whether it violates Facebook's rules.

From the article:

Facebook employees rushed to internal forums to say they had reported monkey emojis or other degrading stereotypes. Some workers asked if they could volunteer to help sort through content or moderate comments for high-profile accounts.

“We get this stream of utter bile every match, and it’s even worse when someone black misses,” one employee wrote on an internal forum.

But the employees’ reports of racist speech were often met with automated messages saying the posts did not violate the company’s guidelines. Executives also provided talking points to employees that said Facebook had worked “swiftly to remove comments and accounts directing abuse at England’s footballers.”

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BEFORE YOU GO

Comment with care. Ever wonder how that lackluster Amazon purchase you made mid-pandemic somehow racked up thousands of great reviews, persuading you to finally purchase? Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal's Nicole Nguyen, a personal tech columnist, wrote about how sellers on the e-commerce giant's platform are hunting down customers who leave bad reviews to get them to go back on their word—even going so far as to offer one customer-turned-reviewer $40 on a $17 purchase to take their comments down.

How exactly the sellers are doing this is still not entirely clear. But Nguyen writes that there are things customers can do to protect themselves: Keep your name out of it, save your chats and emails, tell Amazon about it, and don't be afraid to block an email address. 

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