What Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ and Other Earworm Songs Have in Common
From the NY Times:
By JOANNA KLEIN NOV. 3, 2016
You should stop reading this now. No really, just don’t. You’re still reading. O.K., you asked for it:
“Rah rah ah-ah-ah!/ Ro mah ro-mah-mah!/ Gaga ooh-la-la!”
There’s your “Bad Romance.” Like the “ugly” “disease” Lady Gaga sings about wanting in this song, an earworm has likely just lodged itself deep inside the auditory cortex of your brain. There it will sit, sucking up your precious brain energy, for the next hour, day, month or even a whole year. ( I had Hall and Oates’ “Maneater” in my head for most of 2005.)
You are not alone.
“That’s all I can really think about right now,” said Kelly Jakubowski, a music psychologist at Durham University in Britain, about “Bad Romance.” In a study published Thursday in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, she and her colleagues compiled lists of earworms from around 3,000 participants to see why some pop songs wiggle their way into people’s heads and stay there. The Lady Gaga hit, which is always at the top of people’s lists, has been developing its own toxic relationship inside the mind of Dr. Jakubowski, who hasn’t heard it in months: “It’s been persisting for two days straight,” she said.
Dr. Jakubowski and her colleagues at Durham University, Goldsmiths, University of London and the University of Tübingen in Germany looked for structural patterns in the melodies of earworm songs. They also compared them with other popular songs by similar artists and chart rankings that had not been listed as earworms in their research, like Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.” They found that earworm songs tended to be fast, with a common, simple melodic structure that generally went up and down and repeated, like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” But the earworm songs also had surprising, unusual intervals, like the chorus in “Bad Romance” or the opening riff of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”
This study is the largest yet to dissect what makes an earworm and adds to a body of research that began in 2001 when James Kellaris, a marketing researcher and composer at the University of Cincinnati translated the German word for earwig, Ohrwürmer, into that “cognitive itch” he called an “earworm.” He found that about 98 percent of people experience this phenomenon at some point in time.
While it may feel like earworms exist only to annoy you, researchers say they may actually serve a purpose. Dr. Jakubowski said earworms could be remnants of how we learned before written language, when information was more often passed through song.
When we learn a song, we use our eyes, ears and even the muscles used for playing or singing it, to stamp it into our brains. This means there are many pathways for the song to take into the brain and later be retrieved. This can be good and bad. It’s good, because earworms are examples of spontaneous cognition — thoughts we entertain despite their relevance to the task at hand, like daydreaming or mind wandering, which have been associated with better planning and creativity. But musical imagery like earworms can also develop into obsessions or hallucinations that disrupt daily life for some people.
Understanding earworms isn’t just about identifying catchy songs, it’s harnessing a small window into the mind. If we better understand why and how some songs stick in particular brains, not only do we better understand memory and help patients live better lives, but we possibly can improve memory, mood and marketing (if that’s what you’re into) said Dr. Jakubowski.
So, what’s your earworm? It doesn’t have to be a pop song. Last week I woke up to the nagging theme song from the 1985 sitcom “Growing Pains.” Now that you’re infected, tell me if you’re too annoyed to “show me that smile again.”