Sunday, 26 February 2006

Nagging bloody music

Have you ever wondered why some of the world's greatest music sometimes leaves your head straight after hearing it, but just let 'Who Let the Dogs Out?' be played anywhere nearby, or hear 'Macarena' at a drunken party, and the damn thing stays with you for days.

This is not just idle whinging. There is a name for these songs, and a whole field of research into them - an odd field of research to be sure, and an even odder name: Earworms (from the German Ohrwurm). Songs that stick in your head on just one playing; tunes of bone-shaking banality that you just can't shake; advertising jingles that gnaw their way right down to the spending parts of your brain. A sort of 'cognitive itch' we can only scratch by playing the bloody things again. Arrggh!

The name Earworms was given to such melodies by researcher James Kallaris, who says:
The ear part is obvious, but the worm part isn't incidental. Kellaris, a consumer psychologist, says it conveys the parasitic nature of the travel of songs into their listeners' ears, only to then get lodged and played on mental continuum. He found that some 98 percent of listeners were at one time or another bothered by a tune that wouldn't leave their heads. The study also found some common offenders, including the Kit-Kat jingle ("Gimme a break"), "Who Let the Dogs Out," Queen's "We Will Rock You," the theme to "Mission: Impossible," "YMCA," "Whoomp, There It Is," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and "It's a Small World After All."

The BBC reports that "even the greatest musicians had suffered with earworms":
Mozart's children would "infuriate" him by playing melody and scales on the piano below his room - but stopping before completing the tune. "He would have to rush down and complete the scale because he couldn't bear to listen to an unresolved scale," Mr Smith related.

Even Mozart suffered with 'cognitive itches'

Professor Kellaris said that his research had shown that there was, however, no standard for creating an earworm - people could react differently to different tunes. "I compiled a top 10 list of earworms in the US, but the number one item is simply the category 'other' - which means that any tune is prone to become an earworm," he said. "It's highly idiosyncratic." And he added that there was also no guaranteed way of ever getting the song off the brain.

Bugger. Been attacked by any Earworms lately?

UPDATE: Sam Anderson at Slate.Com blames bloody Earworms for his own tragic addiction to childrens' music, poor chap. Here is a man truly beyond help:
I find myself crossing new thresholds of aesthetic debasement almost daily. Someone recently gave us a CD by the incredibly popular Australian band the Wiggles. I listened to it once and knew, for a fact, in the same way I know that I have hands, that it was one of the worst travesties in the history of recorded music. The band members seemed to have infantilized themselves to the point of Play Mediacatatonia. Then, somewhere around listen 50, I saw the light—I finally got it—and I sang the Play Mediaopening track over and over until my wife threatened to slap me.
I would too.

LINKS: 'Brain itch' keeps songs in the head - BBC News
Researcher confirms existence of 'earworms': 98% of people have had songs stuck in their head - San Francisco Chronicle

A Thousand Little Melodies: My unfortunate addiction to children's music - Slate.Com

TAGS: Music, Science


  1. Oooh I can identify with Mozart here. There's nothing worse than rehearsing and at the end of the piece having your conductor (or accompanist who is playing) leave out the final chord.

    So you finish on chord V with the leading note strongly in your head. It gives me the shivers - worse than fingers down a blackboard, *much* worse. And the offender always thinks it's *hilarious* but it isn't. I always HAVE to sing the tonic note just to satisfy my longing for it.


  2. I bet you love the way Wagner puts off the home chord for four hours then. What a tease. :-)

  3. I don't get earworms - I think. I might get a song in my head but its no problem to stop it and it doesn't get annoying.

    Can you get literary earworms? I've been reading the novel Trainspotting to a couple of my co-workers during my breaks and now the temptation to refer to people as being "doss c*nt"'s is very strong.

    Classic Scottish literature :-)


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