Stop the music! The science of 'earworms' and the 9 'stickiest' songs

Everybody complains about "earworms;" no one does anything about them.

But British scientists have been studying the maddening effects when a pop song keeps popping into your head — and won't depart. Turns out there are scientific, mathematical and musical reasons why "sticky" songs are so frustratingly sticky.

Earworms (the musical kind, not the cringe-inducing bugs) have an actual scientific label: Involuntary Musical Imagery, or INMI.

According to the first large-scale study of earworms, such songs usually have a faster tempo, a fairly generic and easy-to-remember melody, and specific kinds of intervals, such as leaps or repetition, that set them apart from your average pop song.

The research, Dissecting an Earworm: Melodic Features and Song Popularity Predict Involuntary Musical Imagery, was published Thursday by the American Psychological Association's journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.

The study examined whether a song’s popularity and melodic features helped to explain whether it becomes an earworm. Using a dataset of tunes that were named as INMI by 3,000 survey participants, the study found that songs that had achieved greater success and more recent runs in the U.K. music charts were reported more frequently as earworms.

This conclusion comes after a eye-glazing series of charts, graphs, tables, equations and musical notations. Bottom line: Peppy pop songs that play over and over in your head are designed to do exactly that.

“These musically sticky songs seem to have quite a fast tempo along with a common melodic shape and unusual intervals or repetitions like we can hear in the opening riff of Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple or in the chorus of Bad Romance (by Lady Gaga)," said Kelly Jakubowski, lead author of the study conducted at the University of London.

The most likely tunes to get stuck in heads were those with the most common melodic riffs found in Western pop music, such as a rise in pitch followed by a fall in pitch, as in nursery tunes and in Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Thus, Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5 is an earworm because its opening riff follows this pattern, the study found.

The team provided a list of the nine most often-named earworms by study participants, and three were by the ubiquitous Gaga, a pop song-writing machine who chatted with James Corden on Carpool Karaoke last week about how fast she can crank them out.

They are:
Bad Romance by Lady Gaga
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
Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5
California Gurls by Katy Perry
Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
Alejandro by Lady Gaga
Poker Face by Lady Gaga

The oldest song on the list, Rhapsody, was released in 1975; the newest, Somebody I Used To Know, in 2011. If they want to go for an even 10, we'd nominate Sia's Chandelier, her 2014 melancholic treatise on life as a party girl. (And just like that, it's back in our heads.)

Now that we know the science, how do we get rid of the worms? Try not to think about it, the study authors advise. Or, go back to work.

As long as work doesn't require writing about earworms.


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