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Why Songs Get Stuck in Your Head

A new study explains why nothing short of death will make you forget a catchy song—and finds that Lady Gaga is responsible for three of the most pernicious offenders.
November 4, 2016, 9:23pm

If you've ever had the chorus of "Somebody That I Used to Know" by Gotye run through your head for several consecutive hours, then you have likely asked yourself, Why is this unending torment happening to me? According to a new study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, there is an explanation for your suffering: Researchers found that the songs that frequently get stuck your head are usually popular, faster in tempo, and they contain an easy-to-remember melody with some unusual rises and falls.


Involuntary musical imagery (INMI) is "the experience of a tune being spontaneously recalled and repeated within the mind," the study's authors write. Previous research reports that almost 90 percent of people experience hearing a song in their head once a week. While there are myriad explanations for why this occurs—such as personal association and frequency of radio play—the study's authors instead investigated how a song's musical features and popularity contributed to its memorability.

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To do that, researchers began by culling a lengthy list of INMI songs. They asked 3,000 survey participants to name the artist name, title, and section of the two songs most recently and most frequently stuck in their head. After weeding out children's songs, TV jingles and non-pop genres like classical, as well as singles that were never named to music charts, the sample list was whittled down to 1,558 songs; 1,144 were named once and 414 were named more than once. (The top earworm was Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," which was named 33 times. Two of her other songs—"Alejandro" and "Poker Face"—also made the top nine. Besides Lady Gaga's chart-toppers, other frequently named earworms were "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, "California Gurls" by Katy Perry, "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen, and "Moves Like Jagger" by Maroon 5.)

Using statistical models, researchers first analyzed if and how popularity and recency of a track could affect the probability of it becoming an earworm. They determined, unsurprisingly, that song that charted higher and had longer runs in the charts, as well as songs that had exited the charts more recently, "were named as INMI more frequently than less successful and less recent songs."


The team then turned to melody structure: Researchers used extraction software to analyze the melodic data and determined that songs that were generally faster in tempo were more likely to become INMI. In addition, if the melody in a song is similar to one heard in other tunes, then it's more likely to become INMI. Alternatively, a song with "a highly unusual pattern of contour rises and falls" within the melody may also become earworm-worthy, as it sets itself apart from other popular songs.

Kelly Jakubowski, a postdoctoral research assistant in Durham University's Department of Music, is the lead author on the study. In a press release, she pointed to the opening riff of "Smoke On The Water" by Deep Purple and the chorus of "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga as examples of a common melodic shape and unusual repetitions.

"We already know that recent and frequent exposure to a song makes it more likely to get stuck in your head and people who sing and listen to music a lot tend to get earworms more often than others," she said. "We now also know that, regardless of the chart success of a song, there are certain features of the melody that make it more prone to getting stuck in people's heads like some sort of private musical screensaver."

She also said the study's findings "could help aspiring song-writers or advertisers write a jingle everyone will remember for days or months afterwards."

Jakubowski's co-author, Daniel Müllensiefen, tells Broadly that it was never their intention "to provide a tool to engineer commercial success of pop music." Instead, the music psychologist at Goldsmiths University of London says, they wanted to "understand how the mind works and whether there are any rules that govern how we perceive music."

Of course, we had to ask Müllensiefen what song stayed with him while he worked on this study, which took about five years to complete. "One that works for me always when I only hear the title," he replies, "is Kylie Minogue's 'Can't Get You Out of My Head.'"