I was sitting in an airport waiting for a delayed flight when the guy across from me groaned loudly. "I'm with you," I said.
He shook his head. "It's not that," he said. "I heard Never Gonna Give You Up on the ride over. Now it's stuck in my head."
Without thinking I hummed the chorus... and for what seemed like the next hour my mind continuously looped Rick Astley singing "never gonna run around and desert you."
Why did that song get stuck in my head? Why are some songs more prone to "stickiness" than others? And why do 90% of us get a song stuck in our head at least once a week?
According to researchers at Durham University, songs with certain characteristics are much more likely to become "earworms," or in scientific terms, "involuntary musical imagery":
- They tend to be up-tempo
- They tend to be easier to sing along with
- They tend to have "generic" and easy to remember melodies... but with unique intervals, like pauses, jumps, and especially more repeated notes than you would normally expect to hear.
- They tend to be songs you've heard a number of times; familiarity plays a key role (if only because it's hard to get a song stuck in your head when you can't remember how it goes)
A song that always got stuck in my head was Hey Ya by OutKast. (Hey, my kids were teenagers, and that was back when teens still listened to the radio.) I heard it a million times. It's easy to sing along to, and the doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot synthesizer rhythm in the chorus is repetitive and yet unexpected.
Plus you get to shake it like a Polaroid picture.
Keep in mind I like that song. Not enough to add to a playlist, but I like it. Yet most people assume the songs that get stuck in their heads are songs they don't like. But that could be simply because it's easier to remember constantly looping a song you don't like, not one you do. (Memories of bad experiences tend to be stickier.)
Participants were also asked to name songs that got stuck in their heads. Here are the top 9:
Keep in mind the data for the study was gathered between 2011 and 2013, hence all the "old" songs on the list.
So why does Lady Gaga appear three times in the study's top 9? Her songs were incredibly popular and received near-constant airplay; they're catchy; they're easy to sing along to (not easy to sing well, just easy to sing along to)... they fit the earworm pattern.
And that's why songs like Stairway to Heaven are unlikely to get stuck in your head. If you're of a certain age and gender you've likely heard that song hundreds of times... but it doesn't fit the characteristics of an earworm tune.
So how could my airport acquaintance have banished Rick Astley?
- Lead researcher Dr. Kelly Jakubowski says people may get a song stuck in their heads because they can't remember how it ends; she recommends listening to the song all the way through.
- Another strategy recommended by Jakubowski is to fill your mind with another song, one unlikely to get stuck. (My go-to "replacement song" is Master of Puppets.)
- Chew gum. (Seriously.)
- Call a friend. Your mind is much less likely to wander when you're socializing.
- Walk at a faster or slower pace than the beat of the song. Movement contributes to the earworm experience.
And if all else fails... step away from the Rick Astley before he gets started. (And while you're at it, do your best to avoid any Rickrolling.)