January 2017

Earworms Explained

You know those tunes that get stuck in your head for ages? Turns out there’s a science to them.

In our January 2017 issue, we discussed the results of a recent study on “earworms” conducted by psychologists at Durham University in England. (“Earworm,” by the way, is not a formal name for this phenomenon; it’s officially called Involuntary Musical Imagery or INMI.) The psychologists first asked 3,000 people to take an online survey about the songs that they had the most trouble getting out of their heads. Then they analyzed the songs that were mentioned most often, to see what features their melodies might share.

The Durham psychologists found that the “earworm-iest” songs cited in the online survey had three major similarities: They all featured a simple repeating melodic shape (pattern of notes), they all occasionally used surprising melodic intervals (distances between notes), and they all moved at a fairly quick tempo (speed). It’s worth noting here that several other important factors in a song—like chords, lyrics, rhythm, instrumentation, and production—were not a part of the study, which was purely focused on melody.

Three of the top 10 earworms in the Durham study were by Lady Gaga. We talked about one, “Poker Face,” in our story; another, “Bad Romance,” was voted No. 1. Here are three other non-Gaga songs that made it onto the list. When you listen to them, do you hear similarities in their melodies? If so, what are they? Do you think they have similar tempos or note patterns or interval jumps—or all three?

Queen: “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Journey: “Don’t Stop Believin'”

Gotye: “Somebody That I Used to Know”