I Can’t Get It Out of My Head: When your internal DJ won’t stop playing an infuriatingly catchy song, you’ve got yourself an earworm. Our intrepid reporter dissects the tunes that drive us insane—in the membrane.
You know what’s a shitty song? “Animal” by Neon Trees. This tune sucks like it’s trying to inhale a balloon through a straw. It sucks with the wild, furious abandon of a desperate addict trying to use a flashlight as a crack pipe. So why has some sick, self-persecuting part of my psyche been playing it over and over since the moment I woke up this morning?
What we have here is an earworm: a piece of music that burrows into the mind and refuses to leave. An earworm might take the form of a hit song of the present day, or it could be some piece of pop culture gunk that got lodged in the folds of your brain 20 years ago. TV commercials are among the worst offenders: Online forum users show great disgust for a tribal chant addressed to an anonymous figure in possession of a Kit-Kat bar, and a musical testimony to the deliciousness of the baby back ribs at Chili’s seems to be the object of almost universal contempt.
In a culture overflowing with infectious pop tunes, creepy amusement park anthems and chirpy jingles promising that such-and-such product’s chocolatey taste will transport us from the Hell of suburban existence, a list of earworms can do no more than scratch the surface. With apologies to Mika, The Ting Tings, TLC, Scissor Sisters, Frankie Valli, Billy Joel, Sugar Ray and scads of other deserving artists who have been skipped, here’s a random assortment of songs that drive us insane in the membrane.
Kylie Minogue “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”
You know, Kylie, the phrase “up yours” gets tossed around a lot these days. All I can do is offer it here and hope you’ll feel the sincerity. What’s really maddening about this song is that it seems like the composersknew they were creating an earworm. Don’t try to tell me the cunning goat-demon Azazel and his dark minions didn’t have wise-ass smirks on their faces when they came up with the title “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.”
Tag Team “Whoomp! (There It Is)” Tag Team – “Whoomp! (There It Is)”
Fans of this song may also enjoy: windshield wiper noises, sandpaper on the spine, beer pong. “Whoomp!” has been making a comeback lately due to an Internet rumor that a young Barack Obama appeared in the video. Like the song itself, this claim is completely bogus.
Baha Men “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Baha Men – “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
Baha Men, as a way of saying thanks for this timeless melody, I’d like to offer you a variety pack featuring six different flavors of F**K YOU.
Semisonic “Closing Time” Semisonic – “Closing Time”
Minnesota suck-lings Semisonic have put together one hell of an annoying tune here. Things start going wrong at about 0:01, where the band begins making sounds. Ironically, by using the idea of patrons being shooed out of a bar as a metaphor for the birth of his child, composer Dan Wilson was trying to avoid bringing yet another annoying song about babies into the world. The result? The single most annoying song about bars that the world has ever known. Get outta my head, “Closing Time.” You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.The Black Eyed Peas “I Gotta Feeling”The Black Eyed Peas – “I Gotta Feeling”
Having already established themselves as a powerful voice for the dumdum community with “My Humps,” The Black Eyed Peas came roaring back in ’09 to fulfill our cultural need for a modern, savagely horrible answer to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.” “I Gotta Feeling” won a Grammy, scored No. 1 spots on 20 charts around the world and became iTunes’ most downloaded song ever—achievements made all the more impressive by the fact that this song could suck the gray right off an elephant.
The Marcels “Blue Moon” The Marcels – “Blue Moon”
There have been many, many times when I’ve woken up with a “WTF” piece of music in my head, but on the morning when that piece of music happened to be the “bom b-b-bom, b-b-dang a dang dang, b-b-ding a dong ding” intro to “Blue Moon,” I felt as though some demented clown lurking in the dark basement of my subconscious had just sent me an ass fax.
Bobby McFerrin “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
Bobby McFerrin – “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
It might be all cake and sunshine from where Mr. McFerrin is sitting, but things are looking pretty bleak on this end. Dude, if you’re going to invade our senses with a melody more irritating than sunburns and “Git-R-Done” combined, don’t turn around and tell us to smile, suck up our pain and act like it’s freaking National Hug-a-Grandmother Day.
Use this link with extreme caution. Once you’ve heard this tune, it will be tattooed on your mind for life. This song—the 2004 corporate anthem of a printing exhibition in Düsseldorf, Germany—is worth hearing just for its unintentionally funny lyrics, but it also happens to have the most maddeningly catchy melody in the history of five-story jumps. Yes, it’s a blatant rip-off of ABBA’s “Super Trouper,” but imagine if that particular earworm ate a massive mound of irradiated bubblegum and transformed into a colossal, city-destroying über-worm. It’s absolutely awful … and it totally rules. Consider yourself warned.
One song that didn’t make the above list deserves a special mention: Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Of all the popular tunes from the past year or so, this one is unparalleled in its ability to stick in your head like a harpoon. One of the song’s deadliest hooks is its hypnotic “Ga-ga, ooh la-la” incantation, which is clearly an Illuminati brainwashing device designed to turn infants into assassins.
In the article “Music Therapy for Healthy Children and Families,” Jamie Blumenthal, MA, MT-BC writes: “Instead of singing the words to a song, you can sing ba ba ba, or da da da or ma ma ma, or that old standby, la la la. You might be surprised to find your baby singing along because the ‘words’ are familiar.” Or, in the case of “Bad Romance,” you might be surprised to find yourself singing along with Lady Gaga, whose very name sounds like a boast that its bearer knows just how to speak to your inner thumb-sucker.
One of the first songs many babies learn is “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” whose smash success with the Huggies set probably has something to do with the fact that its fans can say “ba.” “Ba” also happens to be a key lyric in “Barbara Ann” (and—let’s be honest—pretty much every other tune the Beach Boys ever sang). Apparently this connection didn’t escape The Beach Boys themselves, who began “Barbara Ann” by singing “Baa Baa Black Sheep” on their Party! album.
A few other examples of hit songs featuring baby talk: The Police’s “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” (an overt comment on the public’s attraction to simple songs), Queen’s “Radio Ga-Ga” and The German band Trio’s 13 million-selling “Da Da Da,” which was a hit in approximately 30 different countries in spite of being string-of-drool stupid.
The point: Certain songs may stick in our heads because they trigger impulses, memories and feelings from infancy and childhood. Earworms like “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y Night” and the Oscar Meyer jingle (“It’s O-S-C-A-R”) are not-so-distant cousins of “The Alphabet Song” (which happens to share its melody with “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” the better to easily sink into the mind of a child who has successfully learned to speak and is ready to tackle reading and writing). Seeing a roomful of adults belt out the chorus of “YMCA” is a lot like watching a bunch of kids sing “B-I-N-G-O,” and there’s a reason why it’s so easy to remember the Sesame Street-esque “1-2-3-4-5” shout in XTC’s “Senses Working Overtime” or the title line from Coolio’s “1, 2, 3, 4.” And let’s not overlook the strong “Mary Had a Little Lamb” influence evident in the chants that make earworms like “My Humps,” Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” Eminem’s “Without Me” and Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky” so catchy.
In light of all this, it’s not too surprising that untold legions of polltakers have named “It’s a Small World” the single most insidious earworm ever. (A close second: Barney’s “I Love You.”)
Tell Me Something Good: The Wrath of Chaka Khan
University of Cincinnati professor James Kellaris is the man who popularized the word “earworm” in the U.S. (The term comes to us from Germany, though it’s often been mistakenly traced back to a scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khanin which a sinister Chrysler Cordoba spokesman tortures his prisoners by sticking brain-eating worms their ears.) Kellaris, who goes by “Dr. Earworm” and has spent years studying the phenomenon, believes we get songs stuck in our heads as a result of what he calls “cognitive itch”: The brain detects something exceptional in a piece of music and attempts to “scratch” the resultant mental itch by repeating the melody over and over. Kellaris claims that the music that captures our interest in this way generally has at least one of three qualities, the first of which is simplicity.
As we’ve seen, you needn’t look far for examples of simplicity in the earworm world. In fact, one type of hook that appears in many catchy tunes is based on literally the simplest melodic idea possible: Hit a note, and then repeat it. Among many other songs, you’ll find this idea in “Tainted Love,” “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Dude Looks Like a Lady” and Yello’s “Oh Yeah” (the “chk-a chk-ahhh” song from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Hitting a note three times in a row can also make for a powerful hook (as in “De DO DO DO, de DA DA DA,” “Break me off a piece of that KIT-KAT BAR,” the “la la la” hook of “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and the signature bass line of “Another One Bites the Dust”). The choruses of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and Marilyn Manson’s “The Dope Show” both begin with a note being sung four consecutive times, and the chorus of The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles” is pretty much all about just grabbing a note and humping it vigorously.
Santa Cruz’s Greg Camp, the guitarist for the rock/pop band Smash Mouth and the composer of that band’s best-known songs (including “Walkin’ on the Sun” and “All Star,” the latter of which frequently shows up on lists of songs that get stuck in people’s heads), echoes Kellaris’ assertion that the stickiest tunes tend to be simple ones. “I think the less chords and the more simple the melody, the words and the actual idea of the song, the better,” he offers. “If you’re writing about existential [subjects]—you know, something that not everyone can get their head around—you’re going to lose every time, for sure.”
Oakland’s Kevin Cadogan is the former lead guitarist for the alternative rock band Third Eye Blind, which has given us earworms like “Semi-Charmed Life” (“Doot-doot-doot, doot-do-doot-doo … I want something else”) and “Jumper” (“I wish you would step out from that ledge, my friend”). He believes the simplicity of your average earworm is somewhat deceptive. “It’s easy for our brain to latch onto something with less than a certain amount of notes,” says the musician, who co-wrote 10 out of 14 songs on Third Eye Blind’s six million-plus-selling debut album and received the best songwriter honor at the 2000 California Music Awards. “I don’t think Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ is something that’s going to be on the tip of your brain, because it’s too complex. But the thought process behind those simple melodies that we all take for granted, I think, is still mysterious and masterful. Creating something like [he hums “Carol of the Bells,” known in America as “Ring, Christmas Bells”] may seem simple, but a complex process of thinking went into creating that simple line.”
Cadogan cites Greg Camp’s “All Star” as another example of this principle. “‘All that glitters is gold’ is an obvious twist on a well-known saying,” he states. “It is staggering to think how many melodies could fit that familiar phrase, yet his brain was able to sift through all those possible melodies and pick out just the right one. It’s those things that I think the brain likes to hear: familiar sayings, but to the right rhythm and melody.”
Familiarity might breed catchiness, but so does a quality that “Dr. Earworm” James Kellaris refers to as incongruity: some element that catches the ear off-guard by defying expectation. As an example of this, Camp, whose new album with Smash Mouth comes out in a few months, mentions a trick he picked up from Cole Porter’s music: Change a chord that was major in the first chorus of the song to a minor chord in the second chorus.
Which brings us to the final attribute that Kellaris mentions as a common trait of earworms: repetitiveness. (Just listen to any song from the list at the start of this article to hear that principle in action.) Camp notes that he has a daughter who listens to Radio Disney, whose repertoire is extremely limited. “[The songs] are all individually repetitious, and they just play the eight songs over and over, which in itself is repetitious,” he notes. “After a while, you’re brushing your teeth at night, and all of a sudden you’re singing some Miley Cyrus song, like ‘Why did that happen?’”
Don’t You Forget About Me
Yeah, why did that happen, and how can we keep it from happening again? Well, as noted in the poorly translated Fortune 500 Global article “As a Song Is Catchy,” which comes to us from Drupa’s homeland of Düsseldorf, “The scientists themselves disagree about exactly where the catchy driving his tricks.” The writer notes, however, that “how hard and how long it is in the brain makes wide, depending on the daily form of stress or tiredness offer the sound of invisible parasites a broad attack.”
Though stress and fatigue can indeed attract sonic parasites, research has shown that we are most vulnerable to earworm assault (termed Musical Imagery Repetition by neuroscientist Sean Bennett and Involuntary Musical Imagery by neurologist Oliver Sacks) while in a positive emotional state and engaged in a non-intellectual activity such as walking or showering. Participants in an unscientific poll conducted via the message board at the website straightdope.com typically indicated that they were in a “neutral to positive state,” but alone and bored, at the time of infestation.
Tellingly, sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder appear to be especially susceptible to earworms. Musicians also tend to get songs stuck in their heads frequently (well, duh), and though the phenomenon occurs equally often for men and women, it is often longer lasting and more irritating for women.
According to a study released in 2003 by Dartmouth College’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, the rostromedial prefrontal cortex (RPC) is the nexus of earworm woe. One of the functions of this part of the brain is to remember melodies—and, in some cases, to remember them every few seconds. (It seems likely that a similar kind of hiccup in the brain’s memorization circuitry is to blame when we get words like “egalitarian,” “langostino,” “gubernatorial” or “Syphadias” stuck in our heads.)
Apparently the RPC’s got skills: By having people sing the songs that were dominating their minds, University of Montréal earworm researcher Andreane McNally-Gagnon discovered that the brain records every detail of a melody’s notes and phrasing. Test subjects nailed their songs’ keys, pitches and tempos with surprising accuracy.
McNally-Gagnon believes that earworms may serve as emotional regulators. Contradicting everything Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” has taught us, her findings indicate that people are more likely to feel positive emotions after falling prey to an earworm than before it took hold.
Waiting for the Worms
Over the past few weeks, songs by Bush, Kaiser Chiefs, Outkast, Stone Temple Pilots, AFI, Avenged Sevenfold and April March have squatted in my skull unexpectedly, and you know what? I was fine with that. These are what you might call friendly earworms. Then there’s the type of earworm that isn’t objectionable on a musical level, but that is still frustrating because you can’t identify the tune that’s occupying your consciousness. When this problem comes along, you can whip it by using one of the many free remedies listed here.
But as we all know, when the earworm is a song you can’t stand … well, that’s just mailbox-full-of-wasps awful. There’s no tried-and-true cure for this, but some sufferers report that they’re able to get rid of the offending song by listening to it all the way through, while others find relief in doing something distracting such as working or weightlifting. Greg Camp says he simply puts different music on to get rid of earworms, while Kevin Cadogan listens to NPR. “It’s like holding your breath when you’ve got hiccups,” he states.
That said, musicians might want to work with the earworm rather than trying to fight it. “If you’re a songwriter, you can use that: What is the whole reason why that song is stuck in your head?” Camp says. “It’s so stupid, and you hate it, but there’s a reason for it.”
Cadogan has some thoughts on what that reason might be. “I think what my brain’s doing is trying to come up with new melodies that grow out of [the earworm],” he ventures. “I think that might be really why we have that itch: For me, that itch is scratched when that song basically turns into a medley of different things: ‘Oh, that sounds a lot like that; I can turn that and make it like this.’”
You heard it here: When the falsetto “la-la-la-la-laaaaa” from “Crocodile Rock” gleefully pisses in your stream of consciousness, or when each “I will!” of “Love Will Keep Us Together” delivers another uppercut to your IQ, you can take heart in knowing that you’re actually being kissed by the Muses.
Songs for your brain
“Animal” by Neon Trees.
The Black Eyed Peas – “I Gotta Feeling”
Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”
Tag Team – “Whoomp! (There It Is)”
Baha Men – “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
Bobby McFerrin – “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”