Science explains why catchy tunes stick—and how to make them go away
Ever have “Don’t Stop Believin’” stuck in your head on an endless loop for days?
Past research has examined what causes involuntary musical imagery (INMI, or “earworms”) and suggests that a wide range of triggers—including how many times you’ve heard the song, and where and when you first heard the song—can lead to the spontaneous recall and repeating of that tune in your head.
But a new British study says there’s a deeper formula that songwriters and composers use to boost their chances of their songs getting lodged in your head.
Researchers asked 3,000 people to list their most frequent earworms and found a common trend: Tracks with upbeat tempos, easy-to-remember melodies, repeated notes, and rising-and-falling pitch patterns all scored as earworms, says lead researcher Kelly Jakubowski, of Durham University.
Here are the top nine songs from the study. (Lady Gaga must be doing something right.)
Bad Romance – Lady Gaga
Can’t Get You Out Of My Head – Kylie Minogue
Don’t Stop Believin’ – Journey
Somebody That I Used To Know – Gotye
Moves Like Jagger – Maroon 5
California Gurls – Katy Perry
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
Alejandro – Lady Gaga
Poker Face – Lady Gaga
Now for the million-dollar question: How do you make an earworm go away?
1. Don’t fight it. If you can’t stop hearing “Just a small town girl!” play the whole song through. This could help eliminate the lyric from getting stuck on a loop, the researchers say.
2. Distract yourself by listening to a different song. In the study, the participants said “God Save the Queen” was their go-to “cure” song for displacing earworms. But these were Brits—so maybe try “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica”.