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The Mystery of Earworms Explained

It goes on and on, and on, and on.

If that phrase planted the song Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey in your head, keep reading because a cure will be revealed shortly. In the meantime, you might be interested in learning about a new study on the science behind those annoying musical earwoms that go on and on in your head and which ones are most likely to get stuck there.

That’s all I can really think about right now. It’s been persisting for two days straight.

Kelly Jakubowski, a music psychologist at Durham University in Britain, describes her own personal earworm – Bad Romance by Lady Gaga. In the interest of science, Jakubowki and her research team subjected themselves to earworm generators suggested by 3,000 participants to produce a study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. She says this is the first study to determine what makes a song an earworm even if it’s not popular or not played that often by a person’s preferred music source.

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.

Goodbye Bad Romance earworm … hello Smoke on the Water earworm. What the researchers found was that the best earworms had common melodic contours that were familiar to people worldwide. Their example is the nursery rhyme (earworm warning) Twinkle Twinkle Little Star where the first phrase rises in pitch, followed by a fall in the second – a popular opening for many nursery rhymes as well as for popular rock songs like (earworm alert) Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5, a song high on earworm lists.

It doesn’t have to be a current song to become an earworm. In The Mood by Glen Miller is another earworm because of its repeated notes and unexpected changes in tone.

If it’s any consolation, the study found that 90 percent of people suffer from earworms and they can be triggered by something as simple as a word that reminds us of a song. Fortunately, the study also offered some simple cures for earworms. The best is to sing the song all the way through – concluding it seems to kill it. Another is force yourself to think of or listen to a different song. Typical of a British study, the top anti-earworm song suggested was God Save the Queen. Finally, some earworms seem just to go away on their own if you don’t think about them.

Great, that just gave me a Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow earworm.

Anyone in the U.S. know the lyrics to God Save the Queen?

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Paul Seaburn Paul Seaburn is one of the most prolific writers at Mysterious Universe. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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