Why Songs Get Stuck in Your Head

As a Disneyana fan, having songs stuck in my head comes with the territory (it’s what kind of world after all?).  I’ve always accepted it as part of my life.  But now, thanks to some new research,  there may be a scientific explanation.

In a study published in the academic journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, Kelly Jakubowski, PhD, a former psychology teaching fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, may have been the first to scientifically examine this very common phenomenon.  Scientists call this involuntary musical imagery, but a better layman’s term would be earworms.

The study methodology was the researchers  asked 3,000 people about their most frequent earworm and compared those tunes to others that were just as popular at the same time,  but were not named in the survey.  By the way, the songs came from the U.K. popularity charts. They found that the songs commonly cited as earworms were more likely to have fast tempos and, overall, fairly generic melodic contours. For example, in “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, the first phrase rises in pitch and the second falls, which is a common contour pattern.  This pitch pattern makes it easy for young children to remember.  And it’s often used in pop music, too.

But earworms also tend to have some unique and unusual intervals, such as musical leaps or repeated notes.  Good examples would include the chorus of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” or the instrumental riffs of “My Sharona” by the Knack.

“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,” said Jakubowski, who’s now a research assistant in the Department of Music at Durham University. “This could help aspiring songwriters or advertisers write a jingle everyone will remember for days or months afterwards.” The study confirmed what we all could’ve guessed — frequent and recent exposure to a song make it more likely to become an earworm.  It also found that words, images, and other associations can bring songs to mind.  “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,” said Jakubowski.

So is there anything you can do to banish earworms?  Yes, there just may be.  Based on survey responses of what’s worked for other people, the authors make three recommendations:

  1. Engage with the song. Many people said that listening all the way through helps quiet the constant loop in their heads.
  2. Distract yourself. Thinking about or listening to another song helps some people. In the study—remember, this was the U.K.—the top-named “cure song” was “God Save the Queen.”
  3. Let it be. Other people reported that the best way to get rid of an earworm was to just try not to think about it, and let it fade away naturally on its own.

Jakubowski says that 90 percent of us get songs stuck in our heads at least once a week.  This usually happens when the brain is not very active.  And perhaps further research could  help scientists understand how brain networks involved in perception, emotion, memory, and spontaneous thought behave in different people.

To see which songs were found to be the most frequent earworms  during the years the study was conducted (2010 to 2013 ), read the full article at http://time.com/4557229/earworm-music/?xid=newsletter-brief

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