You most likely have found yourself in a scenario where a song or songs you listened to a day or two before seems stuck in your head and you can’t help but repeat it continuously.
The fact is you are not alone. Catchy tunes find a way to lodge themselves into your mind, put themselves on repeat, then eventually go quiet without warning. The funny thing is you hardly see it coming and it doesn’t seem like there is a way for you to get rid of it. But just why do songs get stuck in your head? What’s the science behind this annoying occurrence?
Psychologists have been working hard to understand the phenomenon, which has been given the name “earworms.” They are not actually little insects crawling around your head, as the word suggests. An earworm is simply another term for involuntary musical imagery (INMI), the spontaneous recall and repeating of a song in one’s mind.
After conducting statistical analysis of thousands of earworm submissions, music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski found that there are three key features that make a song most likely to become an earworm: being up-tempo, having a familiar melody set, and having a catchy and unique interval pattern.
The fact is these three features can be found in most radio hits, which means popular songs that you are repeatedly exposed to are highly likely to become earworms. However, some of the chart-topping songs you hear are especially catchy and persistent, and are able to withstand the test of time (evergreen songs).
The faster the speed of a song, the more likely it is to spontaneously pop into your head. This is because people tend to move along to earworms, so earworms can get stuck in your head when you’re walking, brushing your teeth, or sweeping—solely because they match the tempo of what you’re doing.
Furthermore, earworms also tend to have simple, familiar sound structures. The brain looks for an optimal level of complexity, meaning earworms have to be interesting, but not too difficult to remember.
For example, Nursery rhymes usually start at a low pitch, swing upward, then fall back to their original, low note. Music psychologists believe this is one of the many common forms a melody can take, and our familiarity with this sound structure makes it easy for our minds to remember and repeat them.
However, when your brain hears a song, it doesn’t only record the tempo and rhythm, it also pays attention to the song’s emotion and lyrics. All of this information is recorded in the brain’s auditory memory center, and the catchier a song is based on this unique combination of factors, the more attention your brain is going to give it, and the more vividly your memory will cling to it.
You are probably wondering how the songs get stuck on repeat in your head. All of it comes down to cues and triggers in your daily life. Any thought process can have associations with specific song lyrics, including the way you were feeling, the place you where when you first heard the song, who you were with, the smells around you or what you were eating at the time!
There are endless ways our thoughts can trigger a song association, and once the connection has been made, it’s easy for the tune to begin playing in your mind. This process of involuntary memory is primarily responsible for songs get stuck in your head. Wondering how to get them out? That’s a whole other problem scientists are working to solve!