Below is a public speech I delivered last year, we had no set brief or topic list so I decided to be slightly wacky and choose a topic that was different and combined two of my interests: music and psychology. 

As far as evolutionary biologists can determine, there was no need for humans to develop music. There are theories, of course. Is our capacity for music a side effect of developing language? Did it result from an attempt to mimic birdsong? No one really knows. Yet our brains seem to be hardwired for music in so many wonderful and mysterious ways.  

Have you ever had a fragment of a song stuck in your head and you just can’t shake it off? You have an earworm.  A well-documented neurological phenomenon. Over 90% of people are plagued by earworms at least once a week and about a quarter of people experience them several times a day. From a psychological perspective earworms are an example of mental and auditory imagery. Just like you can imagine what a baby crying sounds like, these tunes remain stuck in your head. Earworms are a special form of auditory imagery because they’re involuntary, they don’t just intrude on your mental soundscape but have a tendency to get stuck in a loop repeating again and again, mainly due to modern technology.

The last hundred years have seen an incredible proliferation of devices that help you listen to songs again and again. However it is equally possible that every great historical figure from Shakespeare to King Henry VIII may well have suffered from earworms.

Besides music it is hard to think of another case of intrusive imagery that’s so widespread. Why music? Why don’t watercolours get stuck in our heads?

One theory has to do with the way music is represented in memory. When we listen to a song we’re constantly hearing forward in time anticipating the next note. It’s hard for us to think of one particular musical moment in isolation. If you want to think about the pitch of the word “you” in happy birthday, we have to start back at happy and sing through until we get to you. In this way a tune is just like a habit, once you start tying your shoe you’re on automatic until you tighten the bow.

So what makes an earworm? Songs such as Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance or Moves like Jagger by Maroon 5 were concluded to be some of the top earworms. Both of these songs share similar characteristics. They are usually faster, with a fairly generic and easy-to-remember melody but with some particular intervals, such as leaps or repetitions, that set them apart from the average pop song, according to the first large scale study of earworms.

The study found that the tunes most likely to get stuck in people’s heads were those with more common global melodic contours, meaning they have overall melodic shapes commonly found in Western Pop music. For example, one of the most common contour patterns is heard in “Twinkle, Twinkle little star” where the first phrase rises in pitch and the second falls. Numerous other nursery rhymes follow the same pattern, making them easy for young children to remember. The opening riff of Moves like Jagger by Maroon 5, also follows this common contour pattern of rising then falling pitch, which is why it can get stuck in people’s heads.

Studies of earworms can help us to understand how brain networks – which are involved in perception, emotions, memory and spontaneous thoughts – behave in different people. However continual research can help us fully understand why songs get stuck in our head and in turn unlock mysteries about basic cognition.


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