Can’t get you out of my head – what makes a song an earworm


Kylie Minogue may be disappointed that Can’t Get You Out Of My Head only made No. 2. If ever a song was designed to be an earworm…
Kylie Minogue may be disappointed that Can’t Get You Out Of My Head only made No. 2. If ever a song was designed to be an earworm…
Researchers discover why some songs get stuck in your head - and reveal the top of the pops at creating infectious tunes

The annoying tune that you hear in the morning and keeps playing on your mental MP3 now has a scientific name: Involuntary Musical Imagery, or INMI.

UK and German researchers studying “earworms” say they have discovered why some songs get stuck in your head, and report that Lady Gaga’s hits are most commonly playing in people’s minds.

Their research, Dissecting an Earworm: Melodic Features and Song Popularity Predict Involuntary Musical Imagery, has been published by the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts (yes, we checked, it really is a thing).

The conclusion, after months of research and an eye-glazing series of charts, graphs, tables, equations and musical notations? Peppy pop songs that play over and over in your head are designed to do exactly that.

To get to this possibly rather surprising result, the researchers collected the names of common earworms from 3000 individuals who had been quizzed in an online survey on the topic.

The result was a list of 1558 catchy tunes that had appeared in the UK charts – jingles, children’s tunes and classical pieces were excluded – with more than 400 songs named more than once.

Most frequently named earworm was Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, cited by 33 people, with her hits Alejandro and Poker Face also appearing in the top nine.

Kylie Minogue may be disappointed that her Can’t Get You Out Of My Head only made No. 2. If ever a song was designed to be an earworm…

As with previous research, the team found that more popular songs were – wait for it – more often cited as earworms.

“We found out that songs that had more recently been in the UK music charts and had reached higher chart positions and had been in the charts for longer – all of those things predicted how often a song was named as an earworm,” said Kelly Jakubowski, co-author of the research, now at Durham University.

But further analysis revealed that particular features of the songs themselves were important.

The team focused on 100 earworms that were matched with 100 tunes that had not been cited by the 3000 participants as getting stuck in their heads.

Matches were based on a variety of factors including genre and highest chart entry, allowing the researchers to take into account popularity effects and explore the impact of melody.

The results reveal that earworms typically have a faster tempo and tend to have a rather generic overall pattern of “ups” and “downs” of pitch in the melody.

Plug in Baby by Muse and Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple are good examples.

The way the pitch changes is also important. Songs like Glenn Miller’s World War II big-band anthem In the Mood that have unusual features such as large leaps in pitch or more leaps are also more likely to be earworms.

“I think it could be something related to sort of the brain searching for an optimal level of complexity in a melody.

“It wants something that is quite simple to remember, but something also that adds a bit of interest,” said Jakubowski.


Bad Romance by Lady Gaga
Can’t Get You Out Of My Head by Kylie Minogue
Don’t Stop Believing by Journey
Somebody That I Used To Know by Gotye
Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5
California Gurls by Katy Perry
Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
Alejandro by Lady Gaga
Poker Face by Lady Gaga

The oldest song, Bohemian Rhapsody, was released in 1975; the newest, Somebody I Used To Know, in 2011.

But everyone knows there’s no such thing as a top nine in pop music; it has to be a top 10.

So, to round out the list we nominate Abba’s Chiquitita (1979).

Try and get that out of your head for the rest of the day.


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