Got A Song Stuck In Your Head? Arizona Researchers Want To Know Why

Published: Thursday, May 7, 2015 - 12:03am
Updated: Thursday, May 7, 2015 - 9:44am

(Photo by Kathy Ritchie - KJZZ News)
A preliminary list of common earworms collected by the University of Arizona researchers so far.
(Photo by Kathy Ritchie - KJZZ News)
Andrew Lotto is studying this nearly universal phenomenon of earworms.
(Photo by Kathy Ritchie - KJZZ News)
Researcher Dan Kruse with interview subject Leigh McDonald.

Earworms — those songs or jingles that get stuck in your head and just won’t go away.

In fact, more than 90 percent of people experience earworms. Now three researchers from the University of Arizona are trying to find out why some songs are stuck on mental replay and what purpose they serve.

This Spice Girls song is one of the most pervasive earworms — much to Andrew Lotto’s chagrin. One of the researchers studying this nearly universal phenomenon.

"I don’t understand the magic of 'Wannabe,'" said Lotto. "I often have parties where I’ll DJ a party and I know at some point in night if I put 'Wannabe' on, the floors flooding."

Besides being a part-time DJ, Lotto is an associate professor in speech, language and hearing sciences. He’s collaborating with Dan Kruse and Don Traut. Kruse is a part-time researcher and Traut is a music theorist. They’re using a three-prong approach to study earworms.

"So my interest is in the brain and it’s relationship to sound how it processes sound to figure out how that works, why it works will shed a lot of light on the way our brain deals with sound," Traut said.

"I’m interested in the musical properties of the reported earworms and if there are commonalities between the songs that are reported in terms of rhythm or in terms of harmony or the section of the song," said Traut.

"I’m conducting interview, with eventually several dozen people, and I’m asking them to tell me about that experience," explained Kruse.

As a starting point, the researchers created a detailed online survey.

The team has come up with a few ideas which might explain why a song can be so sticky. Traut calls it "short, short, long."

"'Devil' Inside by INXS is another one with the short, short long — 'devil inside, devil inside, every single one of us has the devil inside,'" he said. "One reason that might show up all the time is because our brain, the processes in our brain, that’s the best away to give it information — short, short long."

Kruse has another theory.

"A lot of what makes music feel good to us emotionally and cognitively is the fact that it creates a certain amount of dissonance or tension — rhythmically, harmonically — then resolves that in a way that allows us to be at rest," said Kruse.

An example of that is Robert Palmer’s "Simply Irresistible."

"The hook is just 'simply irresistible,'" said Lotto. "On its own, not that interesting. What’s interesting is the build up to it, which is there’s this he chorus builds up builds up the instruments come in and then there’s a pause and then it kicks it to you."

Several hundred people have taken the survey so far. Leigh McDonald is one of them. She said she has an earworm almost all the time and that’s why Kruse wants to talk to her.

“I think the record that I’ve had one song that I can clearly say that as stuck in my head was three weeks," said McDonald.

And that song: Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

“And what I’m learning is that everyone has a very unique story to tell,” said Kruse.

Like the woman who had an Eagles song stuck in her head for two years.

"All she could say to me as I was going through a difficult time and something about that song — I don’t know what it did — it helped her through something she was dealing with," said Kruse.

The most common earworms include current hits like “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars and oldies like “Break on Through” by The Doors.

Missing from the list: '80s songs.

"Almost every time I’m talking about earworms, and I have to come with an example of an earworm, I come up with an '80s song. I mean, to me, that’s stereotypical of what an earworm is," said Lotto.

Lotto said the '80s was a time when music became less artist-driven, and record companies hired song writers who knew how to write something catchy.

"Again that’s the cycinal viewpoint," he said. "The other way of looking at the '80s actually figured out what we wanted to hear all the time and gave it to us."

And with earworms, they keep on giving.

Earworms: KJZZ Staff Picks

Have a song stuck in your head? Want one? Check out this playlist to see which songs are on the minds of KJZZ staff. (Click upper left corner of the video player to browse the list.)

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