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Why Some Songs Get Stuck In Your Head More Than Others

You know what an "earworm" is- it's that song you can't get out of your head. The scientific term for an earworm is "involuntary musical imagery." Anyone who watched The Walking Dead this week knows how horrible an earworm can be if it's not a song you would normally listen to. Many people have a default earworm, which you keep in your head when other songs aren't stuck there. Mine is "Ode to Joy" by Beethoven, with or without lyrics. But most earworms are temporary, caused by listening to the actual external music. However, if you listen to a variety of songs, say, on the radio, some are much more likely to get stuck in your head than others, and it doesn't necessarily follow that you particularly like those songs. What makes the difference? That happens to be the subject of a research project, in which common earworms were identified and compared to non-earworm songs.   

What the researchers found was that earwormy songs are generally faster than non-earworms, had “unusual” intervals (unexpected leaps or more repeated notes than usual), and followed “global melodic contours,” which means that they have melodic shapes that are commonly found in Western pop music. They also tend to be the songs that are being played the most on the radio and TV.

An example of one of the most common melodic contours cited by the researchers is ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’ where the first phrase rises in pitch and the second falls in pitch. This melodic contour is also found in the Maroon 5 song ‘Moves Like Jagger,’ the fifth most cited earworm in the study. A little closer to home is the so-called “Millennial whoop,” which alternates between the fifth and third notes of a major scale and is featured in songs like Katy Perry’s ‘California Gurls’ and Twenty-one Pilots’ ‘Ride.’

You can read all about the study at Motherboard. I apologize if this post has caused a song to lodge in your head.

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