Art of the earworm: Why some songs get stuck in your head

New research suggests that certain melodic elements can turn a song into an earworm, independent of radio popularity.

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP­
Singer Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs at at Madison Square Garden in 2014, in New York. The band's song 'Moves Like Jagger' was deemed one of the catchiest songs in a study analyzing why certain songs get stuck in people's heads.

Sure, cockroaches are bad. But there may be one pest that’s loathed even more – the earworm.

Most casual listeners have experienced an earworm before. Certain songs, such as The Knack’s “My Sharona” or Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” have the uncanny capacity to become lodged in our heads. And it’s not just pop music – unshakeable musical repetitions have fascinated composers throughout the ages, from Carpentras to Berlioz. But why do some songs stick more than others?

In an attempt to find out, Kelly Jakubowski of Britain's Durham University directed a 3,000-person survey on the subject of earworms. Her study found that certain compositional elements – the combination of familiar melodic structures with unusual intervals, for example – were prone to “stickiness,” independent of factors like radio popularity. But could these findings change the way composers write music? And if so, should they?

The new study, which was published Thursday in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, identified several similarities between the most common earworms. Unsurprisingly, most were up-tempo songs with fairly generic melodic shapes.

In one common shape, the melody rises in pitch through the first phrase, then falls in the second. The main hook of Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger,” the fifth most common earworm according to this study, follows that pattern almost exactly. Another example of this shape can be heard in “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Many earworms also contained slight musical quirks, such as an odd interval or repetition. “Bad Romance,” which topped the list, contains such a quirk: The song’s chorus, which was composed in the key of A minor, features an out-of-key E major chord.

But could such knowledge take the art out of songwriting? Probably not, says composer and Brandeis University professor David Rakowski.

“Science often takes years and years to find out what artists already know instinctively,” Mr. Rakowski tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. “Knowing the right elements of a great poem doesn’t give you the ability to write a great poem. That doesn’t tell you how to combine and contrast them in artful and fresh ways.”

Most Beatles songs, Rakowski says, have at least one chord that is out of key. That would support the results of the Durham University study.

“[But] I’m not sure if knowing that gives me the ability to write a Beatles song,” he adds.

In future studies, Dr. Jakubowski and colleagues plan to compose a new song based on the features they identified. By playing different versions of that song to participants, they could better understand how things like tempo affect “earworminess.”

“We would also like to test the relationship between earworm tempo and movement,” Jakubowski tells the Monitor in an email. “For instance, whether certain songs are more likely to get stuck in our heads because they match the speed of our walking or running. Previous research suggests earworms often occur during repetitive, periodic movements.”

The new data could also be used in computer-generated music, which is procedurally composed based on preset rules.

“Rules that are derived from human cognitive principles, like those our study has revealed, could help computers to generate music that sounds like it comes from a human,” Jakubowski says.

Others say the earworm – and the obsessive response it elicits – isn’t exactly a good model to draw from.

“I would hate to simplify the idea of the earworm,” Victor Coelho, chair of Boston University’s department of musicology, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “These things actually could be medical conditions. These are things a songwriter wouldn’t want to have.”

Nineteenth-century composer Hector Berlioz was fascinated by the phenomenon. In the first movement of his “Symphonie fantastique,” Berlioz imagines a young musician who is haunted by an idée fixe – a recurring melody that pops in his head whenever he thinks about the woman he loves.

In the Durham University study, several participants reported that they could get rid of an earworm by listening to the British national anthem “God Save the Queen.” Others suggested listening to the earworm itself in an effort to “unstick” it.

“If people are suggesting remedies, they’re already understanding that earworms are not something great,” Mr. Coelho says. 

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