There’s a reason why that song is stuck in your head

Article by Jillian Barton

For many of us, music is an integral part of our lives. We listen to it while we walk to our classes and often while we study. But sometimes, instead of playing the thousands of songs on our playlists, we get stuck with a song on repeat for hours. Suddenly, before you know it, you’re humming the catchy song under your breath, or it’s on a never-ending loop in your brain as you attempt to concentrate on the day’s lecture. Maybe right now it’s The Weeknd’s “Starboy” or Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic.” Regardless of which song may be stuck in your head right now, there are certainly a few reasons as to why.

Those catchy songs that manage to lodge themselves in your brain are called earworms, and over 90 percent of people experience them weekly. Recently, scientists broke down the anatomy of an earworm, specifically looking at certain features of tunes. This included focusing on the pitch and rhythmic elements of melodies.

CD/DVD Disc. Image Credit: mlange_b

Of course, there wasn’t one distinct note that all earworms contained. But researchers were able to detect several patterns when examining different songs. Researchers found that earworms tend to have a common melodic pattern. In terms of pitch, researchers found that earworms tend to have a pattern of ups and downs. This dramatic rise and fall in pitch is a common pattern in Western pop music.

But researchers found that although earworms have a familiar melodic pattern, they tend to have a twist to them. This could include an unexpected leap in pitch or more leaps compared to an average song. These twists in a song’s melody surprise our brain and toy with our expectations. When we listen to a song with the same types of melodic patterns, our brain starts to predict the rest of the song, but when a surprise twist is thrown in, our brain is caught off guard. These unique twists may cause our brain to want to remember the song longer than an average song might. This recollection of distinct melodies could be the reason as to why earworms run a seemingly endless loop in our brain.

Infernal Overdrive at O’Brien’s, Allston MA, Jul 16 2011. Image Credit: Chris Devers

It is this melodic blend of familiarity and surprise that tends to be the recipe for an earworm. And knowing what constitutes an earworm can help advertisers create irresistible jingles and artists design songs to be instant chart-toppers.
The study, which was conducted by the University of London by lead author Kelly Jakubowksi, asked 3,000 participants to name their most frequent earworm songs. Common earworms mentioned included “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, “Don’t Stop Believing,” by Journey, and “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” by Kylie Minogue. Common earworms were then compared to songs that were not named as earworms but were similar in popularity based on the United Kingdom music charts. Researchers were then able to compare the features of earworms and non-earworms.

Feature Image Credit: Patrick Pielarski

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