Why can’t you get that song out of your head?
Almost all of us get songs stuck in our heads hours on end. But why do certain tunes tend to stick in our heads more than others?
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The first large-scale study, led by Dr Kelly Jakubowski at Durham University, may have some answers to this musical phenomenon called earworms or involuntary musical imagery (INMI).
Musically sticky songs usually have fast tempo along with easy-to-remember melody, but with some unique intervals or repetitions that set it apart from the “average pop song”, like we can hear in the opening riff of Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple or in the chorus of Bad Romance by Lady Gaga.
Lady Gaga song Bad Romance from 2009 – in case you forgor: “Rah-rah ah-ah-ah.” – is prime examples of earworms. people over the world were almost immediately able to sing along with her.
Another example is Don’t Stop Believing by Journey and perhaps not surprisingly Can’t Get You Out Of My Head by Kylie Minogue.
It is often assumed that songs that get more radio time and have more recently featured in the charts are more likely to be reported as earworms. The current study has also confirmed this idea by testing it scientifically for the first time.
However, there has previously been limited evidence about what makes the actual song catchy regardless of popularity or how often people may have heard it.
The study, published in the academic journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, found that the tunes most likely to get stuck in people’s heads were those with more common global melodic contours, meaning they have very typical overall melodic shapes commonly found in Western pop music.
For example, such songs often follow the pattern, like music that is heard in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, where the first phrase rises in pitch and the second falls.
In addition to a common melodic shape, the other crucial ingredient in the earworm formula is an unusual interval structure in the song such as some unexpected leaps or more repeated notes than you would expect to hear in the “average pop song”.
The instrumental riff of My Sharona by the Knack and In The Mood by Glen Miller both have this unusual interval structure.
Dr Jakubowski added: “We already know that recent and frequent exposure to a song makes it more likely to get stuck in your head and people who sing and listen to music a lot tend to get earworms more often than others.
“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.”
The researchers surveyed 3, 000 people, from 2010 to 2013, about their most frequent earworm tunes. They arrived at a set of 100 songs and then compared the melodic features of those songs to 100 other tunes that had not been named but were comparable in terms of popularity and how recently they had been on music charts.
Songs were limited to popular music genres, such as pop, rock, rap, rhythm & blues.
Studies of earworms can help to understand how brain networks, which are involved in perception, emotions, memory and spontaneous thoughts, behave in different people.
Ninety per cent of us get a song stuck in our heads playing on an endless loop at least once a week. It normally happens at times when the brain is not doing much such as in the shower, whilst walking or doing chores.
As well as recent and frequent exposure to songs, words, images or other associations can also dig up a song in our brains out of nowhere and lead it to play in our mind over and over again.
Most frequently named earworms in study
Bad Romance – Lady Gaga
Can’t Get You Out Of My Head – Kylie Minogue
Don’t Stop Believing – Journey
Somebody That I Used To Know – Gotye
Moves Like Jagger – Maroon 5
California Gurls – Katy Perry
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
Alejandro – Lady Gaga
Poker Face – Lady Gaga
How to get rid of an earworm
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.
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.