Why earworms get stuck in your head

New study discovers the secret behind catchy songs, which could help understand brain function and predict future Number 1 hits.

3rd November 2016
Why earworms get stuck in your head (iStock)

We all get a shuddering sensation when a song, for no apparent reason, refuses to leave your head – in fact here at BBC Focus we’re no strangers to the dreaded “earworm.” But a new study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts reveals a fascinating insight into earworms, and why some songs are better than others in sticking in our heads.

The large-scale study, involving 3,000 participants, showed that earworms are usually faster, with a fairly generic and memorable melody. They also demonstrate unique intervals, such as leaps or repetitions that set them apart from just your ‘average’ pop song.

Among the most popular earworm tunes in the study were Bad Romance by Lady Gaga, Don’t Stop Believing by Journey and, rather ironically, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head by Kylie Minogue.

A musical mystery

It is a common assumption that earworms are generally songs that get more radio time and spend more time in the charts, which the study scientifically confirms, but it goes further in investigating the actual elements of the song that make it catchy in the first place.

To do this, most frequent earworms of the participants were entered into a database and compared to songs that had never been reported as an earworm at all. It showed songs that matched in popularity together with how long since they’d been in the UK charts.

The melodic features of the tunes were then analysed, revealing that earworm tunes were typically those with ‘common global melodic contours’ i.e. songs that have overall melodic shapes common in Western pop music.

"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" Says Dr Jakubowski, who conducted the research at Goldsmiths, University of London.

A classic example of a common contour pattern is heard in Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, where the first phrase rises in pitch and the second falls. This makes the tune easy to remember and has been exploited in many other nursery rhymes, but also in pop music. For example, the opening riff in Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5, also follows this pattern.

No worming out of this one

In addition to the melodic shape, the other ingredient to the earworm formula is the unusual interval structure. The aim of this is to surpass the listener’s expectations of an average pop song, showing unexpected leaps or more repeated notes than usual. For example, the instrumental interlude of My Sharona by the Knack and In The Mood by Glen Miller both display this different interval structure.

"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,” says Jakubowski. “This could help aspiring song-writers or advertisers write a jingle everyone will remember for days or months afterwards."

Of course, there are a whole plethora of other reasons as to why a song may get stuck in your head, such as meaningful lyrics, a reminder of a memorable experience, or maybe even the structure of your brain.

The authors conclude that studies of earworms can help elucidate how the brain works, and improve our understanding in how perception, emotions, memory and spontaneous thoughts behave in different people.

For the record Call Me, Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen and All About That Bass by Megan Trainer are currently earworming through my head…

 


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