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Earworms: Why Some Songs Tend to Stick in Our Heads

Nov 04, 2016 05:19 AM EDT

A new study offered some scientific explanation why some songs tend to be played over and over again while others just pass by and can be easily forgotten.

The study, published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, suggests that songs that stick in the head, or more commonly known as earworms, have some particular intervals and follows some sort global melodic contours. These two attributes, in addition to fast tempo and generic, easy-to-remember melody, make earworms stick longer in the mind compared to average pop songs.

"These musically sticky songs seem to have quite a fast tempo along with a common melodic shape and unusual intervals or repetitions 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," explained lead author Kelly Jakubowski, PhD, of Durham University, in a press release.

For the study, the researchers asked 3,000 people to name their most frequent earworm tunes. Using the list from the respondents, the researchers compared the earworm tunes to songs that are included in the UK Music Charts, but were not branded as earworms by the respondents. All the songs included in the study were limited to popular music genres, such as pop, rock, rap, rhythm & blues.

After analyzing and comparing the melodic features of earworms and non-earworms song, the researchers observed two attributes in the earworms that can't be found in other popular songs. The researchers found that songs with more common global melodic contours, or have overall melodic shapes commonly found in Western pop music, are most likely to become earworms. Furthermore, adding unusual interval structure in the song, such as some unexpected leaps or more repeated notes, could make the song stick in the head.

The most common nursery rhymes follow the first pattern, making it easier for children to remember these tunes. The "Moves Like Jagger" by Maroon 5 also follows the common contour pattern of rising then falling in pitch. On the other hand, the instrumental interlude of "My Sharona" by the Knack and "In The Mood" by Glen Miller both follow the second pattern of unusual interval structure.

The top five songs most commonly classified as earworms in the study are "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga, "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" by Kylie Minogue, "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey, "Somebody That I Used To Know" by Gotye and "Moves Like Jagger" by Maroon 5.

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