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Why some songs become ‘earworms’ and get stuck in our heads

REUTERS/Toru Hanai
“Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga headed the list of the 100 earworms most commonly cited by the study’s respondents.

Why, exactly, do certain songs become “earworms” — melodies that, annoyingly, get replayed over and over again in our heads?

A group of British researchers believe they may have figured out an answer to this neurological puzzle. After analyzing 100 popular songs frequently cited as “involuntary musical imagery” (as earworms are called in the scientific literature) they’ve identified certain characteristics that seem to set those tunes apart from other, equally popular but “non-sticky” songs.

“Our findings show that you can to some extent predict which songs are going to get stuck in people’s heads based on the song’s melodic content,” said Kelly Jakubowski, the study’s lead author and a post-doctoral researcher at Durham University, in a released statement.

“These musically sticky songs seem to have quite a fast tempo along with a common melodic shape and unusual intervals or repetitions,” she added.

The study was published online last Thursday in Psychology of Aesthestics, Creativity and the Arts, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

Lady Gaga song tops lists

To conduct their analysis, Jakubowski and her colleagues used data collected from 3,000 people, aged 12 to 81, who had filled out an online questionnaire about earworms between 2010 and 2013. Specifically, the questionnaire asked people to name the most recent song that had gotten stuck in their head, as well as the song that tended to most frequently do so.

(The website, called the Earwormery, is still up and running. You can go there and fill out the questionnaire yourself, if you wish.)

Jakubowski and her colleagues then compared the 100 earworms most commonly cited by the study’s respondents (“Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga headed the list, followed by “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” by Kylie Minogue and “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey) with 100 other songs equally popular at the time.

They found that the earworms contained several characteristics that were missing in the other songs.

Pitch patterns, intervals and repetitions

Having a fast (but still easy-to-follow) tempo was one of those shared musical traits, but it wasn’t as important as having “common melodic shapes” and “unusual intervals or repetitions,” write the researchers.

They found, for example, that the first musical phrase of most earworms has a rising pitch that then drops during the second phrase. Many nursery rhymes, including “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” follow this pattern, the researchers point out, but so does the opening bars of “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5, which was one of the top-named earworms (number 5) in the study.

Another important earworm characteristic was an unusual — and memorable — interval structure, such as notes that “leap” or repeat themselves in unexpected ways. The researchers point to the instrumental riff of “My Sharona” by the Knack as an example of this kind of memorable structure.

Jakubowski and her colleagues also found, not unsurprisingly, that “a song’s popularity and recency — in particular, the song’s highest U.K. chart entry, the number of weeks the song spent in the charts, and the number of days since the song has exited the charts — can play a significant role in predicting the number of times a song is named” an earworm.

But popularity alone doesn’t turn a song into an earworm.

“We now also know that, regardless of the chart success of a song, there are certain features of the melody that make it more prone to getting stuck in people’s heads like some sort of private musical screensaver,” said Jakubowski.

Getting rid of earworms

As I’ve noted here before, surveys have found that more than 90 percent of us report being susceptible to earworms from time to time. The stickiness of these songs appears to happen when we’re not engaged in heavy cognitive thought, such as when we’re in the shower, or walking or doing non-brain-demanding household chores.

If you ever want to dislodge a pesky, unwanted earworm, Jakubowski and her colleagues offer the following advice:

  • Engage with the song: Many people report that actually listening to the earworm song all the way through can help to eliminate having it stuck on a loop.
  • Distract yourself by thinking of or listening to a different song. The top-named “cure song” for displacing earworms is “God Save the Queen” [known as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” on this side of the Atlantic].
  • Let it be: Others find that the best way to get rid of an earworm is to just try not to think about it and let it fade away naturally on its own.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts website, but the full paper is behind a paywall.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Carrie Preston on 11/09/2016 - 12:39 pm.

    Easy Street

    An earworm for me is the song they used on Sunday night’s Walking Dead while Daryl is in Neegan’s jail. It’s called Easy Street and it’s eating my brain!

  2. Submitted by Jane Cracraft on 11/10/2016 - 08:48 am.

    Yellow Submarine

    Years ago a friend recommended Yellow Submarine as a song to supplant any earworm, and I’ve found it works most of the time. Get a rousing version of that going in your head! Of course if that *is* your problem song, I have no solution.

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