Can’t get that song out of your head? Here’s why.
Have an earworm stuck in your head? You’re not alone. The song stuck in your head on a seemingly never-ending loop — otherwise known as an earworm — affects 99% of people, while 90% of us experience earworms at least once a week.
Why wont that tune go away? Music is directly linked to conscious memories, prompting experiences to trigger certain songs. Your brain associates certain places or routines with songs, mentally playing those songs whenever you revisit those experiences. Songs that are more likely to get stuck in your head and become earworms usually have a more upbeat tempo, have a simple structure and melodic pattern, but are punctured with enough unusual intervals to make them memorable, according to research by Kelly Jakubowski of Durham University’s Music and Science Lab.
On repeat: How music plays in our minds is based on the science behind musical repetition. Hidden patterns in seemingly simple songs or even monotonous ones can have highly complex rhythms, which is how syncopation — the correlation between different tones that “sync” together to make up a single piece of music — works.
A shared rhythm buried deep within songs: Vox’s original series, Earworm, a musical journey that probes into the stories behind songs which have “a common musical DNA” suggests that some songs have their syncopation buried so deep that, on surface, the songs may sound completely different, but underneath they have the exact same patterns that subconsciously create a familiar tune. Entire genres become based on patterns; Blues for instance, is based on the I-IV-V pattern. Other songs that become earworms are structured around lyrical repetition, which is a staple feature in popular music around the globe.
The speech illusion: When musicians repeat the same word over 20 times, the focus shifts from the meaning of the lyrics to their rhythm and musicality. “Repetition grabs a hold of our brain in ways that we often can’t quite control and that might make us feel like the music is playing us, rather than us playing the music,” Vox’s series narrates.
The musical fabric of our emotions: Netflix’s documentary Music Explained argues that repetition is the essence of music; it is what differentiates an environmental sound from a musical one. Patterns in music help us create deep connections with our feelings. It claims 16th century Italian composer Clavdio Monteverde was the first to compose a simple baseline ascending the minor scale. In the hundred years since, composer after composer have used the exact same baseline to express lament, and with each repetition its meaning grows. We hear these melodies so often, that their effect becomes immediate and unconscious.
The ‘catchiness’ of certain melodies can also be an effective teaching tool: Music has long been used in the process of educating young children to help them retain information, as in nursery rhymes.
Everything is a remix: This documentary explains why sampling music has been universally accepted for decades. Baselines have been sampled so many times that music legends such as Led Zeppelin might actually come off as rip-offs.
Want visual evidence that shows how songs are packed with patterns? Song Sim is a tool that visualizes songs, revealing how a song can be structured around lyrical repetition. Turns out we “really, really, really, really like” repetition in music.
Myths on “catching” an earworm: Sing Happy Birthday! This isn’t entirely correct because what you’ll actually be doing is replacing one earworm with another. But one way that Jakubowski suggests to “deworm” yourself is to actually listen to the full song. Other bizarre methods: For some reason, chewing gum has been found to be effective at purging an earworm, according to research from the University of Reading.
Want to test these out yourself? Grab a stick of gum and check out this earworm playlist on Spotify.