More Study of Earworms. Why Do Some Songs Get Caught in Your Head?

I cannot get Twenty One Pilots’ “Heathens” out of my head. I don’t particularly like the song but it’s managed to lodge itself in my brain on a 20-second loop centering on the lines “Just because we check the guns at the door/Doesn’t mean our brains will change from hand grenades.” Please. Make. It. Stop.

What is it about songs like this that cause them to squat unwanted in our heads? According to new research, scientists have figured it out this particular form of catchiness in music.

  1. The nursery rhyme rule. If a song follows the same sort of pattern that you find in a nursery rhyme, the chances of it getting stuck in your brain increases. Best example? Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” follows the same pattern as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

2. The tempo rule. Faster songs have a better chance of becoming earworms, especially if they have unexpected changes in rhythm. Example:

From The Telegraph:

Dr Kelly Jakubowski, of Durham University said: “Our findings show that you can to some extent predict which songs are going to get stuck in people’s heads based on the song’s melodic content.

“This could help aspiring songwriters or advertisers write a jingle everyone will remember for days or months afterwards.

“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.”

Overall, Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ was found to be most catchy tune, followed by ‘Can’t Get You Outta My Head’ by Kylie Minogue and Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin”.

So once you get an earworm, what’s the best way to get rid of it? Sing “God Save the Queen” to yourself.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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