Take a wild guess what’s been stuck in my head all day.

On my drive into school this morning, NPR reported on the death of Robert B. Sherman, a songwriter who, with his brother Richard M. Sherman, co-wrote many old classic Disney songs. Including, you guessed it, It’s a Small World After All. Immediately, I wondered about what makes an earworm so catchy, and the presence of J in the backseat also made me wonder if children’s songs all have those earwormy characteristics. (Note to self: don’t EVER let J hear It’s a Small World till he’s at LEAST 15.)

I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the top Google hits for ‘earworm’ is on WebMD. They list the top earworms culled from a survey of over 500 college/graduate students, and sure enough, It’s a Small World After All made it into the top 10. Two jingles were rated higher: Chili’s Baby Back Ribs, and KitKat’s Gimme a Break. I suppose that speaks to the power of advertising.

There is plenty of discussion on earworms out there, and while everyone acknowledges that earworms are “sticky”, no one really explains WHY. Radiolab (one of my favorite podcasts) dedicated one of their episodes to exploring pop music, and asked this question to Bob Dorough, who wrote for Schoolhouse Rock. Eventually, they reduce song stickiness down to a good musical hook, but even this seems like it could be broken down. What makes a good hook? Beyond that hook, the episode also touches on how really catchy music lyrics contain themes or ideas that are easily relatable.

There is frustratingly little quantitative research on precisely what makes a song “sticky”. Cursory Google and Pubmed searches mostly yield articles on corn parasites (earworms, yum). One of the few published studies on earworms was published by Cunningham et al, aptly titled “THE PAIN, THE PAIN”: MODELLING MUSIC INFORMATION BEHAVIOR AND THE SONGS WE HATE. The authors polled nearly 400 people on what songs they really hated, and why, then tabulated the most common words used to describe these annoying songs. The most common terms, unsurprisingly, are ‘lyrics’ and ‘music’. They go on to say that their list of terms confirms the theories of James Kellaris, that songs are mostly likely to be earworms if

1) the song is overly repetitive, either in tune, lyrics, or both …

2) the tune or the lyrics lack complexity—the song is musically simplistic, or the lyrics are predictable and undemanding…

3) the song contains incongruous or unexpected elements—for example, irregular beats, unpredicted melodic patterns, or unusual effects…

4) the song does not resolve, or the resolution is not as predicted by the listener…

Catchy pop songs (Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’, for instance…) and children’s songs are both simple and repetitive. Kellaris sounds like he knows his stuff. His research interests are on influences of media on marketing, so clearly Chili’s understands too.

The threads of what I found to be the most intriguing possibility concerning what makes an earworm sticky started when I found the work of Diana Deutsch, a psychology professor at UCSD who studies “perception and memory for sounds, particularly music.” From a simple audio memory test, she concluded that memory for musical tones seem to be stored or processed in a different place in the brain from spoken word. Lo and behold, someone has tested this by fMRI! Rogalsky et al used an fMRI to measure brain activity in people who listened to various speech patterns or melodies, and found that there was only partial overlap in the areas of the brain activated. Unfortunately, this study didn’t include a combination of lyrics with melodies, so there’s still the possibility that earworms activate a completely different place in the brain. That caveat aside, this strongly implies that lyrics (repetitive, as observed by Kellaris and others, or relating to themes near and dear to us, as observed by the folks at Radiolab) combined with catchy music, are somehow grabbing our brain more fully than just one or the other.

All discussions of earworms somehow lead to ways to obliterate the earworm… either by replacing with another song, or saturating oneself with the song. I wouldn’t want to leave you with It’s a Small World After All stuck in your head, so here’s my favorite song by the Sherman brothers. Here’s hoping this unsticks the other Sherman brothers’ song from my own head.

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3 Responses to Take a wild guess what’s been stuck in my head all day.

  1. jeff says:

    I’ve always thought it was “simple”. The anthro-bio nonsense explanation is that it has to mimic sounds from nature (e.g. birdcalls, other forms of primitive animal chatter): be repetitive with a module length of no more than 15-20 seconds, and be modulated within a half-octave or so of middle C. chirp-Chirp-chiiiirp-churp. no ear worms I know of are incredibly high or low frequency or break any of these other rules. the modulation is required to make them distinct from white noise. not a theory exactly, but a rule grouping.

  2. Pingback: Earworms continued | Wedge Wonders Why

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