In Brief

Why songs get stuck in your head

Tracks from Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue feature in Durham University's list of 'earworms'

A new research paper by music psychologists has delved into the science behind how certain music can become stuck in your head – so-called "earworms".

Dr Kelly Jakubowski, of Durham University, and her team compiled a list of such songs from around 3,000 participants in order to see how they use melody, rhythm and harmony.

The new study is the largest and most comprehensive to tackle the subject of what makes an earworm - a term first coined by James Kellaris, a marketing researcher and composer at the University of Cincinnati, who also found that 98 per cent of people experience the phenomenon at some point in their lives.

The study suggests that songs that get stuck in your head are usually more up-tempo and have a simplistic and easy-to-remember melody. 

However, they will often contain unique intervals and repetition structures that set them apart from less-catchy pieces of music, making them more easily identifiable.

Some of the most effective earworms in recent popular music - as listed by the paper itself - include Bad Romance by Lady Gaga, Don't Stop Believing by Journey and the appropriately titled Can't Get You Out of My Head by Kylie Minogue.

Jakubowski's report suggests that when a song is being learned, humans make use of aural and visual memory in order to store it cognitively, even using muscle memory based on how to sing the song. 

This, the New York Times says, "means there are many pathways for the song to take into the brain and later be retrieved".

The study also showed that the psychological functions that help store an earworm in the brain are associated with increased creativity and planning skills.

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