Why You Can’t Get That Song Out of Your Head: A Scientific Analysis

Photo via ScienceNetwork on Flickr.
Photo via ScienceNetwork on Flickr.

If you have ever found yourself humming or singing a song hours after you heard it, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re just like everyone else in the world. Between 98% and 99% of the population has experienced the phenomenon known as an ‘earworm’, and yes, that term is exactly as annoying as it sounds.

One major culprit responsible for writing and creating songs that get stuck in your head is Max Martin. The 43-year-old writer/producer has co-written some of the most memorable pop songs of the last decade, including 17 Billboard #1 hits. If you’ve ever had “Roar” by Katy Perry, “…Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears, or “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift stuck in your head, then you have been a victim of Max’s infectious tunes. It’s no coincidence that songs he’s written for Katy Perry, Pink, Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, and Britney Spears have all reached the top of the charts. These songs were bound to become earworms, but the real question is why?

To answer that, we have to look at two things — the song itself, and our brains. One thing the songs have in common is their composition. Most of them are pop songs with repetitive beats and melodies, with simple but memorable lyrics. The more complicated song melodies or lyrics get, the less likely it will catch on as much. So how has Max Martin cornered the market on pop-song earworms? Though many critics are quick to judge the simple lyrics and pop driven instrumentation, it is a skill to be able to consistently churn out songs that hit Billboard’s #1.

Recent studies suggest that earworms occur much more when our brains are ‘idle’, or doing tasks that are tuned to automatic processes that happen behind the scenes. If you’re driving, folding laundry, walking, or doing any other mundane daily task, you are likely to be more susceptible to catching an earworm. But there is an underlying cause for this temporary annoyance. According to scientists, earworms potentially exist to stabilize our emotions. Yep, you heard that right. A song stuck in your head could actually be a response from your brain trying to keep you happy or prevent you from experiencing sadness. Since these earworms only tend to affect short-term memory, they’ll only last as long too.

Annoyed by earworms? It is possible to get rid of them. Researchers at Western Washington University have been working hard to figure that out. Their solution is to do light but focused activities, like Sudoku, anagrams, or even light reading, which will keep your brain occupied and focusing on things other than the earworm. So next time you have a song stuck in your head, remember that it might just be your brain doing you a favor. Or it might just be there to annoy you.

Source: Policy Mic

Drew Evans

Drew is a Seattle-based freelance writer. He spends too much time playing music, binging on Netflix, and watching his beloved Philadelphia sports teams.