Science can tell us what the 9 greatest earworms are

3 Nov 2016

Child trying to block out an earworm. Image: Iren_Geo/Shutterstock

Why has that one particular song gotten stuck in your head all day long? As it turns out, there is quite a bit of science behind an ‘earworm’.

You’ve had a long day at work and unbeknownst to you, in the background of your office, someone has been playing the latest Justin Bieber album on repeat.

On your commute home, you begin to realise that you’re humming to one of the Canadian star’s tunes, even though you have been quite vocal of your dislike for his brand of incredibly successful pop music.

Future Human

It’s all in the rhythm

So what makes a song an earworm that seems to repeat in your head involuntarily, no matter how you try to stop it?

According to new research from Durham University, there is an aural science behind what makes a song a pop hit, or simply one that quickly fades into the background to be forgotten.

Earworms – or ‘involuntary musical imagery’ to give it a more official term – have been almost universally found to play at a fast tempo with a fairly generic and easy-to-remember melody. They may contain some unique intervals, such as leaps or repetitions, which set it apart from others.

Publishing its findings in the academic journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, Dr Kelly Jakubowski and her team asked 3,000 people to name their most frequent earworm tunes.

By comparing these to tunes that topped the UK music charts, but have never been described as earworms, the team went on to analyse and compare their melodic features.

It then became apparent that the songs most likely to get stuck in people’s heads were those found to have more common global melodic contours, meaning they have very typical overall melodic shapes – commonly found in pop music.

A jingle writer’s dream

In Western culture, the tune to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – whereby the first phrase rises in pitch and the second falls – is one of the most popular in nursery rhymes, because this same melody is easier for the human brain to remember.

“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,” explained Jakubowski.

“This could help aspiring songwriters or advertisers write a jingle everyone will remember for days or months afterwards.”

Aside from potentially unlocking the secret to making a successful song, Jakubowski and her team has said that by studying the effects of earworms on the brain, it can help science, too.

It does this by helping us understand how brain networks – which are involved in perception, emotions, memory and spontaneous thoughts – behave in different people.

Just like a music chart, the team has been able to rank the top earworms according to those surveyed, and it is a real catalogue of hits.

The real earworm hits

  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
  6. California Gurls – Katy Perry
  7. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
  8. Alejandro – Lady Gaga
  9. Poker Face – Lady Gaga

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic