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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear “Weight­less,” the Most Relax­ing Song Ever Made, Accord­ing to Researchers (You’ll Need It Today)

Music That Helps You Sleep: Min­i­mal­ist Com­pos­er Max Richter, Pop Phe­nom Ed Sheer­an & Your Favorites

The Neu­ro­science & Psy­chol­o­gy of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and How to Over­come It

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

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Comments (4)
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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.

  • Cranjis McBasketball says:

    These song­writ­ers have big pp

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