Why Catchy Songs Get Stuck in Our Brains: New Study Explains the Science of Earworms

What’s your current earworm?

For obvious yet sad reasons, “Raspberry Beret” and “Ashes to Ashes” have tunneled into my brain in the past year. Can’t seem to shake ‘em loose, though it certainly could be worse. Wander through a shopping mall (while they still exist), go to a chain restaurant or grocery store. You may pick up an unwanted passenger—the tune of a song you loathe, yet cannot for the life of you forget.

But can the Prince/Bowie soundtrack in my mind properly be called an “earworm”? According to researchers at Durham University, Goldsmiths, University of London, and the University of Tubingen, this is a scientific question. Music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski of Durham University and her colleagues published a study last year titled “Dissecting an Earworm: Melodic Features of Song Popularity Predict Involuntary Musical Imagery.” In it, they define the properties of songs that produce “involuntary” recall.

You can read the study yourself here. It begins with a summary of the previous research on “the concepts of musical ‘catchiness’ and song ‘hooks,’” as well as the advice successful musicians often give for writing “hooks” that will stick with listeners for life. It’s not as easy as it looks, though one of the hallmarks of a successful earworm is simplicity. As Joanna Klein writes at the New York Times, Jakubowski and her colleagues “found that earworm songs tended to be fast, with a common, simple melodic structure that generally went up and down and repeated, like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’”

However, earworms also unsettle our expectations of simple melodies, with “surprising, unusual intervals,” as in the chorus of Lady Gaga’s insidious “Bad Romance” or, bane of every guitar store employee, Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” Research on earworms began, notes Klein, in 2001, “when James Kellaris, a marketing researcher and composer at the University of Cincinnati translated the German word for earwig, Ohrwürmer, into that ‘cognitive itch’ he called an ‘earworm.’”

Kellaris estimated that around “98 percent of people experience this phenomenon at some point in time.” In order to analyze the earworm, Jakubowski and her team collected lists of songs from 3,000 study participants. They attempted to isolate variables such as “popularity and recency” that “could affect the likelihood of the song becoming stuck in the mind.” Before controlling for these factors, “Bad Romance” appeared at the top of a list of “Songs Most Frequently Named as Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI).”

It’s a tune that might—under certain circumstances, be used as a weapon—along with two other Gaga songs at numbers 8 and 9. See the full list below:

1. “Bad Romance,” Lady Gaga
2. “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” Kylie Minogue
3. “Don’t Stop Believing,” Journey
4. “Somebody That I Used to Know,” Gotye
5. “Moves Like Jagger,” Maroon 5
6. “California Gurls,” Katy Perry
7. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen
8. “Alejandro,” Lady Gaga
9. “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga

The study goes on, in some technical detail, to account for chart position, length of time on the charts, etc. Unless you’re familiar with the methods and jargon of this particular kind of psychological research, it’s a bit difficult to follow. But Klein summarizes some of the upshot: “While it may feel like earworms exist only to annoy you, researchers say they may actually serve a purpose.... earworms could be remnants of how we learned before written language, when information was more often passed through song.”

The survival of this mechanism can be used for good or ill—as was so humorously illustrated in my favorite scene from Pixar’s psycho-dramedy for kids, Inside Out. Advertising jingles, annoying pop songs that we mindlessly buy and stream because we can’t stop singing them, and—not least—perhaps the most effective earworms of all time, TV sitcom theme songs.

The heyday of unforgettable theme songs, the 80s, left us with some real gems: Klein names Growing Pains (“show me that smile again!”). But I’m guessing we could get together in the thousands for an impromptu chorus of Cheers, Charles in Charge, Family Ties, Family Matters, Step by Step, or my new earworm Silver Spoons (thanks YouTube). As these examples—and so many hundreds more—prove, musical earworms have been used by clever hacks to hack into our brains for quite some time now. When songwriters we like do it, we can at least enjoy the involuntary intrusions.

Feel free to share your own unshakeable earworms in the comments section below.

via The New York Times

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Matthew McConaughey’s Audition Tape for Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, the Indie Comedy That Made Him a Star

In 1992, Richard Linklater faced one of the most formidable challenges in the life of any successful filmmaker: following up on his breakthrough. The previous year he'd become an art-house star with Slacker, an examination of the various lives aimlessly but amusingly lived at the Generation-X periphery of Austin, Texas, a film whose deliberately wandering form perfectly matched its substance. That got him enough of a profile to command the relatively huge budget of $8 million (versus Slacker's $23,000) to make Dazed and Confused, the story of a bunch of Austin teenagers on the last day of high school in 1976. While the movie hardly turned blockbuster, it did help solidify Linklater's place among the American auteurs — and almost accidentally launched the career of one of today's biggest movie stars.

Matthew McConaughey stole Dazed and Confused's show, as many critics and fans saw it, as David Wooderson, an early-twentysomething who still prefers the company of high-schoolers. You can watch a piece of his original audition tape, made available by the Criterion Collection, at the top of the post. "He is a character we're all too familiar with in the movies," wrote the Austin Chronicle's Marjorie Baumgarten, "but McConaughey nails this guy without a hint of condescension or whimsy, claiming this character for all time as his own."

Some of the most memorable moments of his performance, which you can see in its final form in the clips just above and below, owe to its improvisatory nature: originally a small part with just a couple of lines, the character of Wooderson grew with every resonant on-set invention.

"Of the many great people I met in the process of casting this movie, you were selected because I had a gut impulse about you," wrote Linklater in the letter that accompanied the 1970s mixtape he sent out to inspire Dazed and Confused's cast. "Know your character so we can forget about it and build something new, something special, in its likeness. As I've said before, if the final movie is 100% word-for-word what's in the script, it will be a massive underachievement." And in a sense, McConaughey's casting itself, as he and casting director Don Phillips told it in a Texas Monthly oral history of the movie, happened improvisationally as well. It came as the result of a chance encounter at an Austin hotel, where Phillips spotted "this really good-looking girl at the end of the bar with this pretty cool-looking guy."

That cool-looking guy was, of course, McConaughey, who'd turned up for the drink discount from the bartender, his film-school buddy. “Hey, man, the guy down at the end of the bar is in town producing a film," said the bartender to the aspiring actor by way of a tip, and before they know it, in McConaughey's words, "We’re talking about life and women and some great golf hole he’s played." By the time of their ejection from the bar, they'd developed enough instant camaraderie for Phillips to offer McConaughey an audition: "Maybe we’ll put you on tape to see what you look like.” Though Linklater at first balked at his fellow Texan's excessive handsomeness, he eventually came to realize his suitability for the part, and the rest — up to and including McConaughey's reprisal as a fortysomething but otherwise unchanged Wooderson in the music video for The Black Widows' "Synthesizers" — is cinema history.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch The Cure’s First TV Appearance in 1979 … Before The Band Acquired Its Signature Goth Look

Many fans of the Cure first encountered them with 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, a double album filled with bouncy pop confections like “Why Can’t I Be You?” and “Just Like Heaven,” or with Disintegration, 1989’s swirling atmospheric masterpiece that nails the sound of severe depressive episodes. On these albums, Robert Smith & company’s coverage of each “point on a bipolar scale” wasn’t an affectation—it was a lifestyle. Or so it seemed to the average listener given the band's peculiar look: pancake makeup and weeping willow hair that gave them the air of stage clowns in a Restoration madhouse.

So associated are they with an arthouse look and new wave pop-to-tortured goth sound that many people find it jarring to discover just how punk they once were. Though able from the start to rip out pop gems like “Boys Don’t Cry,” the band inhabited a harder-edged territory in their first few years. In the late 70s, along with The Damned, Joy Division, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, they carved out the space of British post-punk and new wave before there was any such thing as “goth.”

As you can see from their first TV appearance, at the top, the spare, spiky hooks and atmospherics that form the basis of their sound predated the distinctive look, one so easily packaged, copied, and parodied later on—and turned to excellent cinematic account by Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands and Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place.

The televised performance took place at Theatre de l’Empire in Paris on December 3rd of 1979, by which time the band had been already been together for several years, though they were still very young (Smith only 21), and had only just released their first studio album, Three Imaginary Boys. In the full performance, above, see them play the title track and their controversial, Camus-inspired, first single “Killing an Arab.” They open, in the first clip, with a new song that would appear on the next record, Seventeen Seconds. It’s one that presages the supremely moody ambiance of Disintegration, but without that album’s lyrical focus. Here, what would become “A Forest” is played as “At Night,” with entirely different lyrics.

In these early performances, we see how formidable The Cure was as a minimalist punk band, and how effective is Robert Smith’s angular guitar work, which earned him a spot in the touring version of Siouxsie and the Banshees that year as well.  (See him play “Love in a Void” with them above in a ’79 television performance.) Like that band’s earliest work, The Cure drew directly on the raw energy of punk in both their musical and sartorial choices. Only later did they develop into the gloriously mopey goths fans know and love, as the 80s made more flamboyant demands on music fashion, apparently, and Smith became a more eccentric version of himself, turning his extreme introversion into a series of theatrical, tragicomic personas.

via Laughing Squid

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hayao Miyazaki Picks His 50 Favorite Children’s Books

Once upon a time, books served as the de facto refuge of the “physically weak” child. For animation legend, Hayao Miyazaki, above, they offered an escape from the grimmer realities of post-World War II Japan.

Many of the 50 favorites he selected for a 2010 exhibition honoring publisher Iwanami Shoten's "Boy's Books” series are time-tested Western classics.

Loners and orphans--The Little Prince, The Secret Garden--figure prominently, as do talking animals (The Wind in the Willows, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle).

And while it may be a commonly-held publishing belief that boys won’t read stories about girls, the young Miyazaki seemed to have no such bias, ranking Heidi and Laura Ingalls Wilder right alongside Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island’s pirates.

Several of the titles that made the cut were ones he could only have encountered as a grown up, including 1967’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and When Marnie Was There, the latter eventually serving as source material for a Studio Ghibli movie, as did Miyazaki’s top pick, Mary Norton’s The Borrowers.

We invite you to take a nostalgic stroll through Miyazaki’s best-loved children’s books. Readers, how many have you read?

Hayao Miyazaki’s Top 50 Children’s Books

  1. The Borrowers -- Mary Norton
  2. The Little Prince -- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  3. Children of Noisy Village -- Astrid Lindgren
  4. When Marnie Was There -- Joan G. Robinson
  5. Swallows and Amazons -- Arthur Ransome
  6. The Flying Classroom -- Erich Kästner
  7. There Were Five of Us -- Karel Poláček
  8. What the Neighbours Did, and Other Stories -- Ann Philippa Pearce
  9. Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates -- Mary Mapes Dodge
  10. The Secret Garden -- Frances Hodgson Burnett
  11. Eagle of The Ninth -- Rosemary Sutcliff
  12. The Treasure of the Nibelungs -- Gustav Schalk
  13. The Three Musketeers -- Alexandre Dumas, père
  14. A Wizard of Earthsea -- Ursula K. Le Guin
  15. Les Princes du Vent -- Michel-Aime Baudouy
  16. The Flambards Series -- K. M. Peyton
  17. Souvenirs entomologiques -- Jean Henri Fabre
  18. The Long Winter -- Laura Ingalls Wilder
  19. A Norwegian Farm -- Marie Hamsun
  20. Heidi -- Johanna Spyri
  21. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer -- Mark Twain
  22. Little Lord Fauntleroy -- Frances Hodgson Burnett
  23. Tistou of the Green Thumbs -- Maurice Druon
  24. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes -- Arthur Conan Doyle
  25. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler -- E. L. Konigsburg
  26. The Otterbury Incident -- Cecil Day-Lewis
  27. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland -- Lewis Carroll
  28. The Little Bookroom -- Eleanor Farjeon
  29. The Forest is Alive or Twelve Months -- Samuil Yakovlevich Marshak
  30. The Restaurant of Many Orders -- Kenji Miyazawa
  31. Winnie-the-Pooh -- A. A. Milne
  32. Nihon Ryōiki -- Kyokai
  33. Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio -- Pu Songling
  34. Nine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in For Good Measure -- Karel Čapek
  35. The Man Who Has Planted Welsh Onions -- Kim So-un
  36. Robinson Crusoe -- Daniel Defoe
  37. The Hobbit -- J. R. R. Tolkien
  38. Journey to the West -- Wu Cheng'en
  39. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea -- Jules Verne
  40. The Adventures of the Little Onion -- Gianni Rodari
  41. Treasure Island -- Robert Louis Stevenson
  42. The Ship that Flew -- Hilda Winifred Lewis
  43. The Wind in the Willows -- Kenneth Grahame
  44. The Little Humpbacked Horse -- Pyotr Pavlovich Yershov (Ershoff)
  45. The Little White Horse -- Elizabeth Goudge
  46. The Rose and the Ring -- William Makepeace Thackeray
  47. The Radium Woman -- Eleanor Doorly
  48. City Neighbor, The Story of Jane Addams -- Clara Ingram Judson
  49. Ivan the Fool -- Leo Tolstoy
  50. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle -- Hugh Lofting

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’ll be appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Artificial Intelligence: A Free Online Course from MIT

Today we're adding MIT's course on Artificial Intelligence to our ever-growing collection, 1,500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities. That's because, to paraphrase Amazon's Jeff Bezos, artificial intelligence (AI) is "not just in the first inning of a long baseball game, but at the stage where the very first batter comes up." Look around, and you will find AI everywhere--in self driving cars, Siri on your phone, online customer support, movie recommendations on Netflix, fraud detection for your credit cards, etc. To be sure, there's more to come.

Featuring 30 lectures, MIT's course "introduces students to the basic knowledge representation, problem solving, and learning methods of artificial intelligence." It includes interactive demonstrations designed to "help students gain intuition about how artificial intelligence methods work under a variety of circumstances." And, by the end of the course, students should be able "to develop intelligent systems by assembling solutions to concrete computational problems; understand the role of knowledge representation, problem solving, and learning in intelligent-system engineering; and appreciate the role of problem solving, vision, and language in understanding human intelligence from a computational perspective."

Taught by Prof. Patrick Henry Winston, the lectures can all be viewed above. Or watch them on YouTube and iTunes. Related course materials (including a syllabus) can be found on this MIT website. The textbook, available on Amazon, was written by Professor Winston.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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The Sounds of Blade Runner: How Music & Sound Effects Became Part of the DNA of Ridley Scott’s Futuristic World

Blade Runner, among its many other achievements, stands as quite possible the only 35-year-old science-fiction movie whose visual effects still hold up. Director Ridley Scott and his collaborators' thoroughly realized vision of 2019 Los Angeles rewards a seemingly infinite number of viewings, revealing something new to the viewer each and every time. Yet the sheer amount to look at can also distract from all there is to listen to. For a visual medium, movies stand or fall to a surprising extent on the quality and design of their sound, and if Blade Runner remains convincing and compelling, it does so in large part not because of what see when we watch it, but what we hear.

This in addition to all it makes us think about, some of which the video essayist Evan Puschak, better known as Nerdwriter, explained in "Blade Runner: The Other Side of Modernity." Apparently as big a fan of the film as we here at Open Culture, Puschak has also made another video essay focusing on the masterpiece's aural dimension, "Listening to Blade Runner."

As everyone interested in its making knows, Blade Runner wouldn't quite have been Blade Runner without its music by Vangelis, a composer who used synthesizers (especially the legendary Yahama CS80) in a way seldom if ever heard at that time. But as Puschak points out, "the score isn't laid on top of the visuals. It's not a guide or an addition" but "baked into the DNA of the movie itself."

Every piece of audio in Blade Runner, "including score, sound design, and dialogue," is tightly integrated: "each blurs into the others." Puschak shows us how, as in the scene above, the film keeps the audience unaware of "where the music ends and the world begins," by matching the qualities of the music to the qualities of the space and light, incorporating "faint computer-y noises," and applying still-new digital reverberation technology Vangelis uses on both the music and the dialogue to "fold separate audio sources into one master track," creating a "cohesive acoustic environment" that emphasizes different dimensions of sound at different times in different ways — in service, of course, to different elements of the story.

Though still active as a composer, Vangelis, alas, hasn't returned to do the score for Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Villeneuve's much-anticipated sequel coming out later this year. But the sonic world he created in 1982 has had a more recent tribute paid to it in the form of the unofficial so-called "Esper edition" of the Blade Runner soundtrack. The existing editions, say the two fans who assembled it, "never 'got it right' in terms of chronology‚ or thoroughness," so, "like taking pieces from a puzzle‚ we decided to simply 'cut and paste' from all the exciting releases...‚ 1982 video‚ 1992 directors cut... and construct something fresh." The nearly two-hour listening experience will underscore just how much putting in the right music and sound can do for a movie.

Conversely, watching the five minutes of Harrison Ford's now-excised voiceovers from the original theatrical release below will underscore how much taking out certain sounds can do for one as well:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


Watch Clouds Roil Through the Grand Canyon: A Beautiful Timelapse Film Captures a Rare Full Cloud Inversion

From producer and editor Harun Mehmedinovic comes a pretty breathtaking timelapse film of a rare phenomenon at the Grand Canyon. Writes Mehmedinovic:

Millions of visitors a year come to Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park, one of the seven natural wonders of the world and the most visited national park in the western United States. However, on extremely rare days when cold air is trapped in the canyon and topped by a layer of warm air, which in combination with moisture and condensation, form the phenomenon referred to as the full cloud inversion. In what resembles something between ocean waves and fast clouds, Grand Canyon is completely obscured by fog, making the visitors feel as if they are walking on clouds.

This video was filmed as part of SKYGLOW (skyglowproject.com), an ongoing crowdfunded quest to explore the effects and dangers of urban light pollution in contrast with some of the most incredible dark sky areas in North America. This project is being produced in collaboration with International Dark-Sky Association (darksky.org), a non-profit fighting for the preservation of night skies around the globe.

The film was shot on Canon 5DSR & 5DIII cameras and lenses. You can download high resolution stills via this zip file. Enjoy.

via Twisted Sifter

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