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Why Some Songs Get Stuck In Your Head More Than Others

New research sheds light on why Lady Gaga is the queen of the earworm. Read at your own risk.

by Daniel Oberhaus
Nov 6 2016, 5:00pm

Image: The Sharpteam/Flickr

A few weeks ago my phone died during a long drive through an aggressively uninteresting portion of the Mojave Desert and I was forced to turn on the radio for the first time in years. As someone who can never name more than one or two songs on the Top 40, the experience was a strange one—'Don't Let Me Down,' 'Send My Love,' and 'Cake by the Ocean' were all news to me. After about an hour of letting the latest batch of aural heroin wash over me, I noticed that I had heard the same X Ambassadors song at least three different times on as many stations.

By the time I reached Los Angeles, I was foaming at the mouth and bleeding from the eyes as Daya's choruses ricocheted around my head. I had taken a baseball bat to the car's radio unit somewhere outside of Palm Springs, but I couldn't kill the music that had seared itself into my neurons. I felt like I was going crazy—and that's totally the point.

The scientific name for the phenomenon of getting a song stuck in our head is involuntary musical imagery, but these songs are more colloquially known as 'earworms.' A decent amount of research has focused on the environmental conditions and personality traits which prime us for getting a song stuck in our head, but almost no research exists on why some songs get stuck in our heads more than others.

A new report published by the American Psychological Association on Thursday tackled that question and found they could reliably predict which songs are likely to get stuck in your head based on the composition of the music and the song's popularity.

The researchers used data from a pre-existing, ongoing survey of people who self-reported examples of pop music that inevitably got stuck in their head between 2010-2013. Based on the responses of 3000 survey participants, the number one earworm was Lady Gaga's 'Bad Romance,' which was cited as the top earworm 33 times during this time period ('Alejandro' and 'Poker Face' were the eighth and ninth most cited earworms, respectively, which makes Lady Gaga the queen of involuntary musical imagery).

Earworms are partly the reason why Jon Sudano can do his thing. The other part is raw, natural talent.

The researchers then matched the list of the top 100 earworms with songs that had never been reported as earworms, but were similar to the earworms in terms of style and popularity. Each of the 200 earworm and non-earworm songs were then transcribed to compare the main melodies of each song, which is the root of earwormery and generally found in the chorus.

The researchers then computed 82 structural components of the melody of each song, which analyzed things like tempo, tonal clarity and the range of the melody's pitch (how high or low a note is).

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.'

"Our findings show that you can, to some extent, predict which songs are going to get stuck in people's heads based on the song's melodic content," said Kelly Jakubowski, a post-doc at Durham University "This could help aspiring song-writers or advertisers write a jingle everyone will remember for days or months afterwards."

Here are the most cited earworms in the study—listen at your own risk.

1. 'Bad Romance,' Lady Gaga

2. 'Can't Get You Out of My Head,' Kylie Minogue

3. 'Don't Stop Believing,' Journey

4. 'Somebody That I Used To Know,' Gotye

5. 'Moves Like Jagger,' Maroon 5