What Makes an Earworm So Catchy?

headphones, music, earworm
(Image credit: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock.com)

Ever notice any similarities between the songs that get stuck in your head? Turns out, there's science behind why certain songs repeat in our brains, while others fade away.

Songs that are more likely to become "earworms," as these songs are sometimes called, are typically faster paced, and have "a common melodic shape and unusual intervals or repetitions," lead study author Kelly Jakubowski, a research assistant in the department of music at Durham University in England, said in a statement. 

For examples, those "unusual intervals or repetitions" can be heard in the opening riff of "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple or in the chorus of "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga, Jakubowski said. She worked on the study while she was a psychology teaching fellow at Goldsmiths University of London. [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain]

In the study, the researchers looked at the responses of 3,000 people who had filled out an online survey called "The Earwormery" between 2010 and 2013. The survey asked people to name the song that had most recently been stuck in their head, and the song that was most frequently stuck in their head, according to the study, published today (Nov. 3) in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.

Among the top tunes that people listed as earworms were "Bad Romance" and "Can't Get You Out of My Head" by Kylie Minogue, the researchers found.

Once the researchers had a list of common earworms, they compared these tunes with other songs that, though they reached similar levels of popularity and were released around the same time, had never been deemed earworms.

Earworms, it turned out, were more likely to have certain features than the songs that didn't get stuck in people's heads, the researchers found.

One characteristic of an earworm was a common melodic shape found in Western pop music, in which the first phrase of the song rises in pitch and the second phrase falls in pitch, as in the first two lines of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." The researchers noted that the opening riff of "Moves Like Jagger" by Maroon 5, which ranked as the fifth most common earworm, follows this pattern.

The second characteristic of earworms was that they either had unusual intervals, with "unexpected leaps" in the song's timing, or more repeated notes than a person might expect to hear. The instrumental interlude of "My Sharona" by the Knack has one such unusual interval, according to the researchers.

To get a song out of your head, the researchers offered several tips. For example, listening to the song all the way through may help banish an earworm, Jakubowski said. Listening to or thinking about another song may also help, she said. Finally, Jakubowski said she recommends trying to not think about the earworm and letting it fade away naturally on its own.

Those tips may be helpful to keep in mind after reading this list of songs that the survey participants named as the most frequent earworms:

  • "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga
  • "Can't Get You Out of My Head" by Kylie Minogue
  • "Don't Stop Believin'" 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

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Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.