We’ve all had the experience. A song gets stuck in your head and you just can’t stop that internal melody.
“I listen to the drums in all songs, and when I hear a sick rhythm or drum beat, it just loops in my head, and sometimes I can’t even pay attention to anything else,” musician and junior Michael St. Julien said while waving imaginary drumsticks along to music that only he can hear.
It’s what James Kellaris has coined “cognitive itches,” or “earworms” – the science of songs getting stuck.
“Certain songs have properties that are analogous to histamines that make our brains itch,” said Kellaris, a marketing professor and researcher at the University of Cincinnati. “The only way to scratch a cognitive itch is to repeat the offending melodies in our minds.”
Kellaris’ survey research indicates that between 97 and 99 percent of the population is occasionally afflicted by tunes that they “just can’t get out of their heads,” particularly musicians and people with compulsive tendencies. But while many find earworms just plain annoying, they play a major role in bolstering both the music and advertising industries, which thrive on developing catchy tunes that drive consumers to purchase CDs, concert tickets and various products ranging from coffee grounds to carpeting.
Though most earworms are particular to individuals, Kellaris said some tunes have wider and stronger resonances among average listeners than others. He studied students at the University of Cincinnati in 2003 to compile a list of the “top 10 most infectious earworms.”
“YMCA” by the Village People is a classic earworm according to Kellaris’ study, because of its consistent beat and memorable lyrics.
“We Will Rock You” by Queen has an incongruous beat and melody during lyrical passages while remaining contagiously repetitive during the chorus. Stadium-goers stomp and clap along with the well-known mantra, and it can stay with them long after the game.
The theme to the popular blockbuster “Mission: Impossible” also made Kellaris’ list. Though 74 percent of earworm songs have lyrics, this is one of the 11 percent that are strictly instrumental. Children’s songs are popular earworms, and Disney’s “It’s a Small World After All” is a particularly infectious one.
Kellaris said the most insidious tunes tend to be simple and repetitive. Kellaris said there is no standard for creating an earworm, as they are highly individual afflictions.
St. Julien knows about individual afflictions.
“Music means so much, and means different things to different people, and the drums speak to me,” St. Julien said. I guess you can say you create your own earworms depending on what turns you on.”
As infectious as these songs are, the number one song on Kellaris’ list is “other,” as we are most commonly plagued by tunes that we particularly love – or hate. Similarly, eliminating earworms is also an individual endeavor. Though Kellaris has not developed a foolproof way of ridding the mind of distracting jingles, he has recommendations.
Turning on the radio can replace one earworm with another, and passing it along to friends by singing aloud can provide the amusement necessary to forget the affliction. Sometimes, the brain will repeat a portion of a song because it craves completion, so Kellaris recommends that listeners learn the lyrics to invasive hits, so that the song’s first completed loop will be its last.
St. Julien has his own approach: his head bent, he air drums frantically while gliding on a skateboard to rehearse on a real drum set.