According to a new study on the cognitive processing of songs, “we can determine within five seconds or less whether or not we will like it.”

Researchers from NYU conducted the experiment on a diverse sample of approximately 650 university undergraduate students and New York City residents. Participants listened to over 250 complete songs and excerpts from these songs lasting 5, 10 or 15 seconds. The portion of the songs that were excerpted varied between participants from intro, outro, chorus and verse.

The music chosen included popular songs across a wide range of genres from Billboard’s charts over the last 80 years. Participants were asked how much they liked a particular song or clip, with answers: “Hate it,” “Strongly dislike it,” “Slightly dislike it,” “Indifferent,” “Slightly like it,” “Strongly like it,” and “Love it.” They were also asked “How often have you heard this before?”, with answers: “Never,” “Once,” “More than once,” “Multiple times,” “Too many to count.”

The results shows that preferences for songs aligned, whether they listened to a clip or the entire song, showing that clip preference ratings predicted whether the participant liked or disliked the entire song. The length of the clip made no difference to the outcome.

Pascal Wallisch, a clinical associate professor at New York University’s Center for Data Science and the senior author of the study said:

Over the course of any given song, the acoustic properties change dramatically, but that doesn’t seem to matter much to the listeners. We can determine within five seconds or less whether or not we will like it.

This finding might have wide-ranging implications for our understanding of what properties of songs evoke certain emotions in listeners. The fact that a small excerpt is enough to tell us if we like it or hate it, suggests that we respond more to the general vibe that a song brings to us rather than its musical notes per se.

Pascal Wallisch

Find the full study from NYU here.