Would you walk 500 miles to get away from that tune? Will your poker face crack the thousandth time it plays in your head? Does it remind you of somebody that you used to know? Do you value the sound of silence? You aren’t alone. These so-called earworms — gross — are annoying but useful, as new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in June helps illuminate the exact function these loops play.
“We can hear just a fragment of a piece of music and it can take us back. How does that happen?” said Petr Janata, a researcher at the University of California, Davis. Music therapists and shrewd marketers have long taken advantage of music’s ability to trigger memory. As research continues to illuminate how the process works, their techniques and goals are likely to become increasingly refined and targeted.
An amateur musician and self-described Dead Head, Janata says earworms help your brain encode and parse through daily memories and sensations that may not have anything to do with the exact moment when you first heard the tune. As it plays over and over in your head, you may come to associate memories or sensations different from those you experienced on first listening.
These musical fragments became a kind of sorting mechanism that triggers clearer recall at a later date, especially when the tune plays once more, according to the study “Spontaneous Mental Replay of Music Improves Memory for Incidentally Associated Event Knowledge.”
Janata and co-author Benjamin M. Kubit aren’t the first to study earworms, also known by the more technical designation “Involuntary Musical Imagery,” or INMI. Previous research has probed the characteristics of songs that are likely to become earworms, whether certain personality types are more likely to suffer the phenomenon and whether listening to unfamiliar catchy music interferes with concentration. (Spoiler: Of course it does.)
In general, musicians and scientists alike have concluded that faster music with simple, repetitive melodies and harmonies are more likely to loop in the brain. “Short melodic phrases combined with a perfect harmonic progression are perfect for this,” said Pittsburgh composer Nancy Galbraith, whose music is regularly premiered and performed by ensembles around the city and country.
Galbraith differentiates between musical “hooks,” a fragment designed to catch the ear, and earworms. Many earworms come from song hooks, but not all hooks become earworms. She pointed to the hit musical “Hamilton” as a recent example of a work filled with effective hooks, many of which evolved into earworms. “My Shot” (don’t throw it away...) still pops into Galbraith’s head from time to time, she said, along with the theme song from the Netflix streaming show “House of Cards,” and the decades-old jingle from Century 3 Chevrolet (“Minutes from the mall!”). “Tchaikovsky was a really great hook writer, but we don’t really call them that in classical music,” she said. “Personally I don’t associate them with anything specific. It’s more of an emotion or sensation.”