Music: Secret of earwigs revealed

Researchers are finding out which melodic structures are earwormable

Why do some pieces of music become a catchy tune while others do not? © CssandDesign / thinkstock
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Endless musical loop: Why certain pieces of music are more catchy than others, researchers have now enlightened. Accordingly, in addition to the familiarity and the recent hearing also certain features of the melody play an important role. Especially good are songs with a rising and falling tone sequence in the ear, but also unusual, repeated tone jumps.

The phenomenon is as annoying as it is known: you hear a song on the radio or on the road - and you will not get rid of it again. Like an endless loop, the melody goes around in your head. It becomes a catchy tune. However, why certain pieces of music are particularly "sticky", while others are not, is still only partially clarified.

Earwigs in the test

It seems clear so far that well-known, often heard pieces are more likely to catch on and that it is often the songs we heard last. Also, an "idle" brain, for example, because we are just washing up, go to work or are engaged in similar routine tasks, seems to promote the emergence of these involuntary endless loops in the head.

The role played by the musical qualities of a piece for its catchy tune has now been studied by Kelly Jakubowski of the University of London and her colleagues. For their study, they asked 3, 000 participants for their most common earwigs. The top three were "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga, "Kylie Minogue's Can not Get Out Of My Head" and "Do not Stop Believing" by Journey.

For the 100 most-named pieces, the researchers then compared musical parameters such as melody progression, tempo or intervals with those of songs that were never mentioned as earwigs. display

Between nursery rhyme and cult reef

The result: In fact, earwig-worthy pieces of music seem to have some typical features. "These 'sticky' songs usually have a rather fast tempo and a frequently occurring melodic form, " explains Jakubowski. For example, the melodic bow often goes uphill first, then down again - a structure that is also found in many nursery rhymes.

The introduction to the song "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple is an example for introspective - and earworm - suspicious - intervals. Mzopw / CC-by-sa 3.0

But there is another earwig factor, as the researchers found out: if a melody has unusual pitches and repeats them, then that is more likely to stay with us. Examples of this include, for example, the characteristic introduction to Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" or the refrain of the song "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga.

There is no sure-fire recipe

Does this mean earmuffs and hits are reproducible according to this very simple recipe? "Our results show that to a certain extent it is actually possible to predict, based on the melody structure, which songs are left in the heads, " says Jakubowski. For music producers or composers of promotional jingles that would be helpful.

But: So many factors play a role in our reaction to music that the surefire recipe for a hit or catchy tune simply does not exist, as the researchers also cite. Because also our personal experiences, the general mood, fashion trends, the lyrics or the voice of the singers play a role.

Chewing gum chewing as an antidote

By the way: If you want to get rid of your earwig quickly, you should chew gum. A recent study found that mouth movements produced a feedback to the auditory cortex that inhibited auditory memory. This prevents our brain from spontaneously bringing out the unwelcome music snippets. (Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Art, 2016; doi: 10.1037 / aca0000090)

(American Psychological Association, Nov 4, 2016 - NPO)