Stuck on Repeat: Why Certain Songs Are ‘Earworms’

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Nearly everyone has had a catchy song stuck in their head on repeat all day. This annoying phenomenon is called last song syndrome, and there may be a scientific reason why this happens, according to a study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.

Researchers at Durham University in the United Kingdom believe that certain songs are more likely to get stuck in your head over others due to their melodic makeup.

Credit: undesigned/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“We now also know that, regardless of the chart success of a song, there are certain features of the melody that make it more prone to getting stuck in people’s heads like some sort of private musical screensaver,” said Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, lead author of the study from the Department of Music at Durham University, in a statement.

The repetition of these sticky songs is otherwise known as having earworms or involuntary musical imagery. The songs are usually faster with an easy-to-remember melody. They also have unique intervals, such as leaps or repetitions that set them apart from other popular songs.

Related: The Song That Reduces Stress by 65 Percent

Having a song stuck in your head is more common than you may think — about 90 percent of us experience an earworm at least once a week, while some people might get them more than others, Jakubowski explained. Those sticky songs sneak up on us typically when our brains are not doing much, like when we are going for a walk or taking a shower.

“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,” said Jakubowski.

The song’s musical shape determines whether or not it’s an earworm. These songs are simple in structure, but have a certain rhythmic pattern. For example, the study listed Maroon 5’s opening riff of “Moves Like Jagger” as one of the top earworm songs because of its common contour pattern of rising then falling in pitch.

Related: These Songs May Have the Perfect Beat to Save Lives

Another type of earworm song has unusual interval structure, such as some unexpected leaps or more repeated notes than in an average pop song. For example, the instrumental riff in The Knack’s “My Sharona” has an unusual interval structure.  

To compile a more comprehensive earworm song list, the researchers surveyed 3,000 people online and asked for their most frequent sticky songs. The songs were compared to others that have never been labeled as earworms in the database, but they were often on the UK Music Charts. Then the researchers looked at the melodic features of earworm and non-earworm songs.

The data was collected between 2010 and 2013, and the music genres were limited to pop, rock, rap and R&B.

We put together this YouTube playlist of their top 9 earworm songs:

How to Combat ‘Last Song Syndrome’

You are not totally helpless against earworms. The researchers suggested doing a few things to help stop certain songs from playing on repeat in your head.

First, they recommended to engage with the song and listen to it in its entirety. You could also try to distract yourself by thinking about or listening to a different song. According to the study, the top “cure song” for earworms is the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen.”

Finally, the researchers say the best way to get rid of an earworm is to simply not think about it and let it go away naturally. However, that might be easier said than done.

Related: This Song Was Especially Designed to Make Babies Happy

Danielle Tarasiuk
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.