Earworm Catch Your Brain?

Scientists, songwriters and ad executives attempt to explain why you can't get that song out of your head
  • Photo: Jeff Fusco/Getty Images
    Carly Rae Jepsen
  • Photo: Lester Cohen/WireImage.com
  • Photo: Kevin Kane/WireImage.com
    Baha Men
September 06, 2012 -- 11:06 am PDT
By Randee Dawn / GRAMMY.com

Want to know who to blame for Baha Men's 2000 hit "Who Let The Dogs Out"? Look no further than Steve Greenberg, founder and CEO of S-Curve Records. The song's future was decided once he first heard it — and couldn't stop thinking about it.

"This aspiring artist came into my office with a version of the song, which was originally recorded by Anslem Douglas. It was so atrocious it never crossed my mind to put it out," says Greenberg. "I really hated the record, but I couldn't get the hook out of my mind. I knew the song was so hooky, I had to put it out."

Greenberg's description of the GRAMMY-winning song's hook is probably why you are almost certainly hearing that title lyric rattle around in your brain right now. It's a particularly pernicious earworm, something to which virtually every music fan is not immune. Just why it happens and what earworms actually mean might not seem like obvious topics for serious research. But they are according to Finnish researcher Dr. Lassi A. Liikkanen, who recently conducted a study on the phenomenon known as involuntary musical imagery.

"People have been studying voluntary musical imagery for about 25 years," says Liikkanen. "This happens when you play a song in your head to help you figure out the lyrics or melody. What happens more regularly is people experience involuntary musical imagery when they don't want to — and that's when you're talking about earworms."

Liikkanen has been working to determine where earworms come from and whether they can be induced. He even set up the Earworm Clinic as a Facebook application this past spring, and now has a few hundred users to help further these studies. His results echo what James Kellaris, a University of Cincinnati business professor, released in a study in 2003: Virtually any snippet of a song can become an earworm.

But why?

"I believe it is a failure of mental control, an artifact of ironic processing. To 'not think' about something, one must remember what it is one is trying not to think about," says Kellaris.

Pop songs and advertisements, two of the most common sources of earworms, tend to rely on simple subjects and mundane references, which means daily life can be enough to start an earworm up. "[With Carly Rae Jepsen's] 'Call Me Maybe,'" says Liikkanen, "if you're discussing giving someone your phone number that might be enough to trigger the earworm experience of the song."

But for a songwriter, implanting an earworm may be a signal that they've done their job. A well-written pop tune these days is loaded with hooks (Adele's "Rolling In The Deep" is nothing but a succession of hooks, says Greenberg), all of which can get embedded in a listener's head and make the song more memorable. 

"The most important thing is to write something where people think they've heard it before, but they haven't," says Carl Falk, a songwriter who has co-written hits such as One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful" and Nicki Minaj's "Starships," among others. "It's all about simplicity. Simplify to emphasize a couple of things, then [repeat] them a lot."

Alan Menken, the GRAMMY-winning composer behind Broadway and Disney tunes from Beauty And The Beast and The Little Mermaid, among others, says an earworm is a good thing.

"That little fragment [that] gets in there during a person's busy, scattered, obsessive day becomes a way to counteract manic energy," says Menken. "The brain is chewing on something else, and the music is a vestige that sits in the brain and it becomes like a mantra, a way to relax."

Pop songs are one thing, but an advertisement that creates an earworm takes a risk with customers. Guy Bommarito, senior vice president and executive creative director at ad firm Ryan Partnership, wrote a few lines about baby back ribs for Chili's in 1995, and hasn't been able to live the resulting "I want my baby back baby back baby back ribs" jingle down since. It even popped up in the hit film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me in 1999.

"We'd do focus groups later and some people would say, 'If I hear it again I'll stick a fork in my eye' while others would say that's their favorite jingle ever," recalls Bommarito. "It was polarizing."

Kellaris and Liikkanen feel that exploring earworms can lead to broader applications of the science. Liikkanen says he hopes he can learn from musical obsessions, a form of OCD, which is like an extreme earworm that can distract a person from daily life. "In rare cases, it can get unbearable," he adds.

Kellaris thinks that once we understand how they operate, earworms could prove useful in another way. "If we can train earworms, we can harness their power to convey messages," he says.

But for some, the real question about earworms is how to make them stop. The bad news is there's no good answer. Liikkanen suggests that people can help eliminate earworms by reducing their amount of musical exposure, but Kellaris has a more Zen approach.

"Don't fight an earworm," he advises. "It just makes them angry, and they will bite harder."

(Randee Dawn is a New York-based entertainment writer whose work has appeared in The New York TimesLos Angeles Times, VarietyThe Hollywood Reporter, and Emmy magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in 3:AM Magazine and on the podcast "Well Told Tales," and she is the co-author of The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion.)

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