Earworms: Why Can’t I Get That Song Out of My Head


Juliette Fang, Staff Writer

Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World,” Kit Kat’s “Give Me a Break,”and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” What do these songs have in common? Each of them are known as an “earworm,” and the ones mentioned above are among the most common. At some point in their lives, many people have had pieces like these stuck in their heads on a loop for seemingly no reason whatsoever. However, while it may seem like earworms strike at random, several key reasons contribute to their unrelenting catchiness.

According to a 2016 study, earworms, or involuntary musical imagery, frequently have melodies and chords that are common across the globe. For instance, the popular tune “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” rises in pitch during the phrase “twinkle twinkle little star,” then descends in pitch in the “how I wonder what you are.” But you can also find this ascending and descending pitch in a recurring melody in The Simpsons theme or the opening of Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” (which happens to be another top earworm). These generic tunes and rhythms feel familiar and straightforward while being combined with just the right amount of novelty, contributing to why it is so easy for them to stick. 

When asked what she thought was catchy, Arcadia High School (AHS) sophomore Juliana Wong replied, “Taylor Swift ‘Message in a Bottle’ or ‘The Very First Night’ [because] some of them popped up in my playlist when I was working out, and I was like ‘these are so soothing; the beat is good for working out, and…catchy.”

“Our findings show that you can, to some extent, predict which songs will get stuck in people’s heads based on the song’s melodic content. This could help aspiring song-writers or advertisers write a jingle everyone will remember for days or months afterward,” said the study’s author, music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski, in an article by the American Psychological Association

The study also found that earworms tend to have upbeat tempos. Think of the infamously catchy “Baby Shark” by Pinkfong, with a tempo of 100 beats per minute (BPM). That’s because fast rhythms usually correlate with movement, especially periodic movements like jogging or brushing teeth. They also have unusual intervals or leaps from low notes to high notes that are particularly large or numerous. For example, think of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, especially the jump from “some” to “where.”

“The catchiest song I can think of would be ‘Purple Town’ by Junko Yagami,” said AHS freshman Karin Yamakawa. “The tempo is fast, many beats are going on every second, and the singer’s voice is magnificent! Her high-pitched voice is really beautiful.”

Repetition is also crucial in earworms. Songs with repeating melodies and lyrics logically have a higher chance of becoming earworms, especially if they contain the above qualities. Unsurprisingly, songs heard repeatedly can quickly become stuck in a loop inside our heads. When this occurs, the brain uses a “phonological loop” in the short-term memory system of the auditory cortex to keep repeating the song.

“I think what makes [a song] catchy is probably the lyrics and how it is appealing based on the meanings,” expressed AHS freshman Andrew Jung. “Some songs are catchy because it has a repetition of some words that can really stick with the listener, but without the melody, the word is pretty useless. By having a meaningful lyric with a strong melody that transitions the words into lyrics, [the song] can stick with the user.”

Besides the music itself, earworms are triggered by several factors. Songs that were recently heard, such as on the radio, are more susceptible to becoming earworms. Memory and keywords or phrases can also trigger earworms. For example, the word “umbrella” might cause some people to think “ella, ella, ella” to the beat of Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” 

Psychologically, earworms are considered a uniquely persistent form of mental imagery, which can be auditory or visual. But why is music specifically so intrusive? Why don’t we visualize famous paintings or recall the taste of breakfast cereal? An excellent way to explain this is to try and pinpoint the exact pitch of the “all” in “Jingle Bells.” Most people have to mentally sing the first part of the tune to reach the pitch of the “all.” Music is challenging to isolate independently and is closely associated with memory or sequences. So once we start a tune, we automatically feel that we must continue it, creating a melody that becomes an earworm. 

On average, around 90% of the general population experience earworms on the regular. In most cases, they aren’t harmful but can get annoying. Fortunately, there are several to deworm. Listen to the entirety of a song to eliminate a single melody being on a loop or add variety to your playlist. You can also distract yourself with other activities or songs or move at a different tempo than the music to throw yourself off. Interestingly, chewing gum is a simple and effective way to combat earworms because it distracts your brain, as stated by The Journal of Experimental Psychology

Even though earworms seem like a nuisance, they have many applications. One of the most obvious is for advertisers, who want a catchy jingle that people can associate with their product. But since earworms are linked to mood, spontaneous thoughts, and memory, studying them can provide valuable insight. So the next time you find yourself with a tune stuck in your head, think twice before you try to get rid of it, as it may be the unexpected key to the subsequent great psychological discovery. 


Photo Courtesy of UNSPLASH.COM