Got a Song Stuck in Your Head? Here’s why

When Jeff Quigley writes a song, he relies as much on intuition as music theory to find the hook, melody and lyrics that sound right to his ear. The Portland-based musician has been writing tunes for six years and he says it takes a lot of tinkering to get all the parts just right.

There are elements that make a successful song, he says. Lyrics, syncopation (the way phrases are broken up) and even production are important. But at the end of the day, for me, it’s about judgment and musical intuition.

Quigley wants to write songs that his audience likes to hear. Even better, a catchy tune that his fans can’t get out of their heads. This is a kind of involuntary musical imagery, otherwise known as an earworm. Most earworms have distinct characteristics that set them apart from generic songs and a song that stands out from others is the golden ticket for songwriters like Quigley.

What makes a song an earworm?

A group of researchers curious to know more about what makes a song an earworm surveyed 3,000 people between 2010 and 2013 about their most frequent earworm tunes. The researchers created a list of the 100 songs most mentioned in the study. Then, they compared the melodic features of those songs to 100 other tunes that had not been named but were equally popular and on U.K. music charts.

Their findings? Songs most likely to stick in people’s heads shared common melodic contours. An example of a melodic contour is when the first phrase of a song rises in pitch and the second phrase falls. Think Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, or the opening riff of Moves Like Jagger, by Maroon 5, which was one of the top-named earworm tunes in the study.

Also, earworms typically have a unique interval structure, such as unexpected leaps or more repeated notes. Justin Bieber’s Sorry, and Ed Sheeren’s recent hit, Shape of You, are good examples. The researchers, who conducted their study at Goldsmiths, University of London, also found that the more radio time a song received, the more likely it was to become an earworm.

Some people more likely to get earworms

It turns out that some people may be more prone to earworms. A 2012 study found that people who constantly sing or listen to music, and those with certain personality characteristics, such as obsessive-compulsiveness, may be more likely to get songs stuck in their heads.

And a small study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition concluded that the size and shape of your brain can also determine if you’re more prone to earworms. The frequency with which the 44 study participants were affected by earworms related to the thickness of the right frontal and temporal lobes.

People with reduced cortical thickness of the right Heschl’s gyrus experienced earworms more often. The Heschl’s gyrus is responsible for auditory perception and voluntary musical imagery. However, people with an increased cortical thickness in the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), which is involved with pitch memory, had fewer earworms.

The IFG also is associated with controlling inhibitions. The researchers believe that people with greater cortical thickness in this region may suppress unwanted earworms, making them seem less frequent.

Chasing the catchy tune

Studies like these may provide some new insights for songwriters like Quigley who are hoping for a hit. He says hell take some of what this into consideration, but in the end, he’ll probably stick with what he feels in his gut. All these things are helpful, he says. But I still believe songwriting is a creative effort. It takes some formal knowledge, but it should also be about expression.

Getting rid of earworms

An earworm may be enjoyable for a short time, but one that loops involuntarily for hours or days can be distracting. Kelly Jakubowski, Ph.D., the lead author of the earworm study offers these three tips on how to get rid of one:

  • Engage with the song. Many people report that actually listening to the earworm song all the way through can help to eliminate having it stuck on a loop.
  • Distract yourself by thinking of or listening to a different song.
  • Try not to think about it and let it fade away naturally on its own.