According to James Kellaris, professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati who has studied why certain songs stick in your head, the tune is “a perfect storm for cognitive itch.” This “itch” is officially called “earworm”: a song or melody that keeps repeating in one’s mind.
“Its meaning conveys the parasitic nature of songs into listeners’ ears, only then to get lodged and played on a continuous loop,” says Kellaris.
There seem to be many theories about why songs get stuck in our heads. One of them comes from researchers of Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. “We found that the auditory cortex that is active when you’re actually listening to a song was reactivated when you just imagine hearing the song,” says David Kraemer, lead researcher of the study.
“When the subjects were in the MRI scanner, which we used to look at the brain activity, we played them parts of a song and then hit a mute button for three or five seconds,” says Kraemer. “We didn’t tell them that we were going to cut out the sound. For songs people were familiar with, they automatically put the missing part in there.” This finding indicates that the auditory cortex can keep on “singing” although a song has already ended.
3 tricks to make a catchy song
So what is it about “Call Me Maybe” that makes it so catchy?
Apparently the song includes three important components that produce an earworm: simplicity, repetition and incongruity.
According to Kellaris, simple, repetitive music is most likely to get stuck in one’s head because the cognitive resource demands are low. “Repetition within the music suggests the cognitive echo we experience as an earworm,” explains Kellaris.
Incongruity in a song also makes that it easily gets stuck in your head, for example a missing or added beat, an odd word, or a harmony that violates pattern expectancies. Although these incongruities often go unnoticed, they do trigger “a slight ‘something’s not quite right’ thought in the back of the listener’s mind” he said and therefore stick.
The hit song seems to be filled with incongruities. An example is hidden in this sentence: “Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my number, so call me, maybe?”
“Crazy” and “maybe” are “a minor violation of listeners’ expectations,” says Kellaris, as the listener expects to hear a hard rhyme like “this is crazy” “so call me Jay-Z”.
How to take that song out of your head?
So what to do when the song hits you again?
Although most earworms eventually “crawl out” on their own, here are a few tips to try when you can’t get a repeating melody out of your head.
1. Sing another song, or play another melody on an instrument.
2. Switch to an activity that keeps you busy, such as working out.
3. Listen to the song all the way through.
4. Turn on the radio or a CD to get your brain tuned in to another song.
5. Share the song with a friend.
6. Picture the earworm as a real creature crawling out of your head, and imagine stomping on it.
Kraemer, D., Macrae, C., Green, A., & Kelley, W. (2005). Musical imagery: Sound of silence activates auditory cortex Nature, 434 (7030), 158-158 DOI: 10.1038/434158a