Music History

How To Get a Catchy Song Unstuck From Your Head

Earworms are an art and a science.
Earworms are an art and a science. Westend61/Getty Images
It’s been well over two months since comedian Bo Burnham’s musical comedy special Inside debuted on Netflix. But if you’re one of us who watched it about a dozen times, you still find yourself humming songs about Jeff Bezos and FaceTiming with your mom.

While we welcome some songs' catchiness, others invade and rule our brain waves as we reluctantly groan the chorus of “Bad Romance” for the 47th time in a day. Why is this happening?

The simple, textbook answer says this stuck-in-your-head syndrome is a form of spontaneous cognition known as involuntary musical imagery, or earworms. They're usually not harmful, save for some serious frustration, and affect up to 98 percent of people in the Western world (thanks, pop music), according to Harvard Health Publishing. (Warning: expect to have some involuntary musical imagery of your own crawling around in your head for a while after reading this article.)

What gives these earworms strength to wiggle their way into our heads for hours, days or even weeks at a time isn’t that complex, really. It’s just smart songwriting, as simple as repeating words over and over.

Dr. David Heetderks, assistant professor of music theory at the University of North Texas, says one factor that breeds earworms can be explained as a song's sheer use of repetition. In particular, pop music holds an unparalleled power to take over a listener's brain.

“[Pop songs] are designed to be the most singable and most memorable,” Heetderks says. And that’s certainly the case, according to a 2016 study done by the American Psychological Association which concluded that fast, upbeat pop chart toppers are usually the wormiest. While that seems obvious, there’s still more criteria needed for an earworm to develop in addition to simply being a popular song.

“It needs a balance between regularity and some interesting detail that will catch your attention,” Heetderks adds.

Lady Gaga’s 2010 hit “Bad Romance” is a great example, as it tops the list of earworms in that 2016 study. The song has all the tropes: repetition, lots of melodic “ohhs” and longer note durations.

While the magic of pop music doesn’t come from actual magicians, songs like “California Gurls” by Katy Perry will magically sneak their way into your head, even all these years later. The repeated "Ohs" in this song, the study found, play heavily into its ability to stay in our heads.

But you don’t have to like or regularly listen to Top 40 hits to feel a sticky earworm cling to your brain. Burnham’s comedy special still resonates musically mainly because he’s just an unexpectedly great musician. That Jeff Bezos song is pure earworm gold and is in our heads constantly.

“Jeff-rey/Jeffrey Bezos”: It only took six syllables. The song continues, “Zuckerberg, Gates and Buffet/Amateurs can fucking suck it/Fuck their wives, drink their blood/Come on, Jeff, get 'em!”

We don't really know why, but we're definitely hyped — and singing this nonsense all day long.

According to “Music is more likely to be an earworm when it is occupying some spot between conventional … and novel.”

Burnham’s songs are undoubtedly novel, though you may disagree if you’re a "Weird Al" Yankovic fan. The Today article also states that upbeat tempos, familiar pitch patterns and big up-and-down leaps in notes, such as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or "Moves Like Jagger" are all prime hallmarks of earworms.

This phenomenon happens to people on average about once a week. Usually the songs go away after a few hours. In rare cases, earworms can linger around long enough to require therapy, or become a sign of depression, stress or obsessive compulsive disorder. Here's what science says to do if you find yourself spiraling in an endless loop of Lady Gaga songs: listen to the entire song; listen to a "cure tune" like "Happy Birthday To You"; chew gum (creating a "new beat" in your head) or simply leave it alone and let the worm work its way back out.
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Diamond Rodrigue
Contact: Diamond Rodrigue