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Why Certain Songs Get Stuck In Our Heads (And How To Get Rid of Them)

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Mar 14, 2019

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Everyone has experienced the annoyance of the earworm — that one song that gets stuck in your head and plays over and over and over again. “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye, “Moves Like Jagger,” by Maroon 5, and ironically, Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” are all top contenders, however Lady Gaga is the indisputable queen of the earworm, with songs like “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face.” But why do only certain songs play, on an infinite loop in our heads? Researchers have spent years trying to figure out the science of the earworm and how, if at all, we can get rid of it.

And now, after punishing research subjects by making them listen to these infectious songs on a loop, scientists might have found the cause of the earworm — Involuntary Musical Imagery, or INMI (which confusingly has nothing to do with imagery).

Studying musical notations, equations, and graphing similarities between these catchy songs, the first large-scale peer-reviewed study of earworms was published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts in 2016. Roughly 3,000 participants named songs that prompt INMI; all songs were found to be both commercially successful, topping music charts around the world, and ‘peppy,’ with fast, repetitive beats.


Related on The Swaddle:
A List of Kids’ Songs That Won’t Drive You Nuts

Along with the tempo, musical riffs that follow certain mathematical patterns also manage to stay in our memories. Consecutive peaks and troughs in pitch, as in the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” are particularly ‘sticky;’ “Moves Like Jagger” follows the same pattern of high and low notes. “These musically sticky songs seem to have quite a fast tempo along with a common melodic shape and unusual intervals or repetitions like we can hear in the opening riff of ‘Smoke On The Water’ by Deep Purple, or in the chorus of ‘Bad Romance’ (by Lady Gaga),” found Kelly Jakubowski, author of another study conducted at the University of London.

So, now that we know about INMI, how do we get rid of it? Researchers suggest that when snatches of a song get stuck in your head, but not the whole thing, actually listening to the entire song might give you some relief and stop the loop. Another scientific paper claims it has found ‘cure’ songs, which include “God Save the Queen,” by Thomas Arne, “Karma Chameleon,” by Culture Club, and “Sledgehammer,” by Peter Gabriel. Others suggest engaging in cognitively engrossing activities, like sudoku, and just trying not to think about the song.

But no matter what you do, you’ll never be able to permanently rid yourself of an earworm. Rah rah ah-ah-ah, Ro mah ro-mah-mah …

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Written By Nadia Nooreyezdan

Nadia Nooreyezdan is The Swaddle’s culture editor. Since graduating from Columbia Journalism School, she spends her time thinking about aliens, cyborgs, and social justice sci-fi. She’s also working on a memoir about her family’s journey from Iran to India.

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