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


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  • Mark H Clarke says:

    I learned to “extinguish” earworms by associating an image with the song. Hear the song – picture the image – soon both be will be gone. I have had much success with picturing a yellow Volkswagen Bug.

    A group I used to supervise complained to me one day that they all had a song stuck in their head. I explained extinguishment to them. They didn’t seem to believe me so as I left, I started singing “It’s a Small World Afterall.” The groaning I heard from them as I left was delightful. Yes, I know that was mean.

  • Judith Flynn says:

    Pop songs don’t stick in my head, but ridiculous songs from my teen-age years in the 50s–like”I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too fat for me.”, and one with the chorus”Durn yer biscuits Miranda,” as well as old English music hall songs my Grandfather used to sing like“Lydia, oh Lydia, oh have you met Lydia” and “when Father papered the ceiling” will beleaguer me for days. I don’t like any of this music: some of it is offensive, musically bland or excessively simple. How come I never have earworms based on Bach or Haydn; composers whose works I love and practice daily?

  • chris hardy says:

    i’m a songwriter and a lot of people tell me that my songs get stuck in their heads – i love that! of course, my musical heroes always wrote very catchy songs, so i guess i’m doing my duty.

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