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By Roger Highfield on

The Science of Eurovision

Aficionados of air grabs, bizarre costumes, power ballads and pop are not the only ones preparing for the eclectic Eurovision Song Contest. Scientists are now attempting to predict the popular vote, reports Science Director Roger Highfield.

Since it started out in 1956 as a friendly music competition between public service television broadcasters, there has been growing scientific interest in the world’s largest — and most eccentric — live music event, which began as a technical experiment in transnational broadcasting and now ranges far beyond Europe’s borders to include Israel and Australia.

For scientists, the Eurovision song competition raises many profound questions: what makes a winning song? Why do some countries consistently perform better than others? Can Eurovision provide deep and enduring insights into the fundamentals of human nature?

To find out, Daniel Richardson at University College London and his colleagues are conducting an experiment – entitled Neurovision, of course – to look at biological responses to Eurovision 2023 songs, so that they can predict their chance of victory on 13 May in Liverpool.

‘We are specifically trying to predict the popular vote – the broad engagement – as the jury vote (seems at least) to be more susceptible to political bias,’ he said.

‘Last year we did fairly well,’ added Richardson, who has in the past also conducted experiments in the Science Museum to investigate the collective behaviour of people.

They based their 2022 predictions on data from around one hundred people with an average age of thirty. They had to watch eight nations’ entries for the finals – Norway, Germany, Spain, Poland, Italy, Australia, Sweden, and France – as the scientists monitored their heart rate and skin conductance. From these data, they made predictions based on the UCL team’s hypothesis that the more similar the heart rate and skin conductance levels when an audience watches the same song, the more engaging that performance must be.

Skin conductance reflects how much someone is sweating, which can be stimulated by the hormone adrenaline. Meanwhile, in earlier work, they found that an absorbing musical can synchronise the heartbeats of the audience so they beat as one.

However, last year’s predictions based on skin conductance levels did not tally neatly with those based on heart rate and the UCL team now thinks that heart rate similarity may tell us how emotionally engaging a performance is, whereas skin conductance may indicate how much a performance’s narrative engages an audience.

For decades, entrants struggling to make themselves understood have resorted to using ‘la la la’ or ‘boom bang a bang’ as their lyrics but the UCL team suggests that may only be enough to change skin conductance, not synchronise the heart beats of the Eurovision throng.

‘This year we have the advantage of being able to train our algorithms in light of what the final results were last year,’ said Dr Richardson. ‘And we have been doing more work on the American version of Eurovision from last year (yes, there is such a thing). So, we are – very cautiously – hopeful that we can improve our predictions.’

While the two semi-finals (Tuesday 9 May and Thursday 11 May) will determine which acts make it through to the Grand Final, there are six acts who are automatically fast-tracked to the final: The Big Four and last year’s winner.

Of the current crop, Dr Richardson tested eight songs. His data predicts that they will place in the following order in the popular vote: Moldova, Norway, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Czechia, and Spain.

The big surprise here is Moldova, said Dr Richardson. ‘It’s a huge outsider in the bookies odds, but in our statistical model from physiological data, it was the runaway winner. Sweden, the bookies’ favourite, was only middle ranked in our results. This means that either we have identified Moldova as this year’s shock hit, or that Eurovision remains fundamentally resistant to science and logic’.

However, there are many songs the team did not test, including the UK entrant, so there might yet be a surprise home win.

Eurovision voting is influenced by more than just musical tastes, however. Antonios Siganos, who is now at Edinburgh Napier University, with Isaac Tabner from the University of Stirling, studied voting patterns and reported in the Journal of International Business Studies evidence that geopolitical factors contribute to a country’s Eurovision triumph, as revealed by the likelihood and nature of business exchanges between entrants.

Their study of Eurovision data from 1999, when public voting began, and 2013 found that when neighbours are generous with their scoring, even if the song is not particularly good, it reveals what they call the ‘societal affinity’ or bond between nations, as reflected in the managerial decisions when taking over foreign firms.

This could explain why Russia and Belarus often exchange points and yet, after a long history of rivalry between Greece and Turkey, Greece famously likes to award top marks to Cyprus, while Turkey traditionally gives it the cold shoulder. ‘Voting patterns also correlate with levels of foreign direct investment and migration movements across borders,’ they add.

Others ask more basic questions, such as what is the point of Eurovision. To explore what she calls ‘a deep evolutionary conundrum,’ Mariella Herberstein, a spider researcher from Macquarie University in Australia, will once again blog about Eurovision.

Last year, for example, Herberstein remarked of Lithuania’s Monika Liu that, despite ‘a pair of excellent shoulders and the best bowl haircut in the whole competition’ Liu’s song was ‘a modern version of the “tuba-piano accordion-drum” axis of evil. Probably more suitable for a beer festival somewhere in the Baltics.’

The conundrum, says Herberstein, is why does the competition continue to thrive despite the extraordinary costs in terms of music, fashion and hype and so few tangible benefits? ‘We will not spare costs, health or sanity to explore and analyse all the entries to generate an explanatory model for Eurovision!’

However, a glimpse of a solution to the paradox might have come from a study that suggests Eurovision can have soothing effects on the national psyche.

The research by scientists at Imperial College London, published in the journal BMC Public Health, analysed data from over 160,000 people from 33 European countries collected around the time of the contest between 2009-2015 and found that people reported being more satisfied with their life if their country had done well in Eurovision that year.

People were four per cent more likely to be satisfied with their life for every increase of ten places on the final score board – for example, if their country finished second rather than 12th. They concluded in their paper that, ‘As improved performance is linked to Ooh Aah Just a Little Bit of improved life satisfaction, further research into how such international competitions may impact public health is needed.’

Visitors playing in the musical playground in Turn It Up at Science and Industry Museum
Visitors playing in the musical playground in Turn It Up at Science and Industry Museum

However, there may be an alternative explanation. When things are going well for a country, it is more likely to do well in Eurovision and keep its citizens happy.

Recent events have if anything confirmed this hypothesis, added Dr Filippos Filippidis, lead author of the research from the School of Public Health at Imperial: ‘For example, there was no contest at all in the year the pandemic started, exactly because things were not going well!’

Nevertheless, the Imperial research chimes with previous studies that show an association between success in big events, such as sporting fixtures and finals, and a nation’s health and wellbeing. Filippidis said: ‘Previous work, by other teams around the world, has shown that national events may affect mood and even productivity – for instance research suggests an increase in productivity in the winning city of the US Super Bowl.’

Eurovision is more than a diverting, sometimes daft, spectacle: it can be good for us too, the scientists conclude.

If you would like to discover more about science and music, visit Turn It Up: The power of music at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester until 21 May 2023, or at the Science Museum from 19 October 2023 to 6 May 2024.