What do the “Odyssey” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” have in common? Each one has a remarkable way of worming itself into your brain for days and days on end. In fact, the two could be proof that certain forms of communication — whether it be an ancient oral tradition or a pop song — are practically engineered to be remembered. There’s more than an art to writing a catchy song, there’s a science to it.
In fact, there’s a chance we’re neurologically hardwired for getting songs stuck in our head. Dr. Kelly Jakubowski was part of a team of researchers in the UK that set out to examine “earworms,” as they are popularly known, by studying songs which 3,000 participants identified as being “sticky.” They compared this set to songs from similar artists, genres, and chart positions that none of the participants identified. They found that most earworms have three traits in common: They are upbeat, have predictable melodies, and include a surprising twist inside that melody. According to Dr. Jakubowski, our brain’s predilection for addictive tunes explains how humans were able to memorize and communicate effectively before the advent of the written word. The Homeric epic the “Odyssey” is just one example of an oral tradition that continued for generations until its first known written edition around 700 BC, close to when the Greek alphabet was invented.
Songs like the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” are noted earworm examples, with the Proclaimers’ winning top earworm in one poll. If you’re familiar with the song, even just reading the words — “And I would walk 500 miles... And I would walk 500 more…” — is enough to create “imagined music” in your head. According to Dr. Jakubowski, imagined music actually looks neurologically similar to listening to real music.
The powerful effects of earworms have long been used in advertising. Just think of the nostalgia when you read the words: “The best part of waking up…” or “Give me a break, give me a break…” or “I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener” or “Baby back baby back…” and the list goes on (we can bet that at least one of those is going to be in your head for the rest of the day). Jingles as we know them today first appeared in a 1926 Wheaties radio ad and took off in the late 1930s; in the wake of the Great Depression, there was an urgent need for effective advertising to drive sales. Dr. Timothy D. Taylor, a musicologist from UCLA, notes that “there probably hasn’t been a time when people haven’t used music to sell something.”
Today, brands often license pop songs that are already proven earworms instead of creating their own jingles. Method, for example, recently reworked the Proclaimers’ hit with a cleaning product twist: “And I would scrub 500 tiles… and I would scrub 500 more…” After all, a catchy tune could really be worth a thousand customers — or a thousand miles.