Why Do Certain Songs Get Stuck in Our Heads?

New research might finally have an explanation for the maddening phenomenon.

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Few things are as annoying as getting a song stuck in your head, especially when it's just one small segment of the song that sticks and replays over... and over... and over again until you're just about ready to rip your hair out.

But why does it happen? If you've always assumed it's just because that song is popular and getting a lot of radio play, you wouldn't be wrong — that is part of it. But according to a November 2016 study, there are other, more melodic elements that make a song stick. And if you know what those elements are, you can likely predict which tune will be playing in your head on repeat all day before it even happens.

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To conduct the study, researchers asked 3,000 participants to name the songs that most often get stuck in their heads (aka earworms). Noting that nearly all of the songs that were named were popular chart-toppers, the researchers then compared these tracks to other, equally popular tracks that weren't named as common earworms.

Ultimately, lead author Kelly Jakubowski, PhD, and her team found that songs with upbeat tempos, common overall melodic shapes, and some unique or unexpected components were the most likely to get stuck on replay in participants' heads. Read: Songs that are faster, follow melodic patterns that most people are familiar with (i.e. a first phrase that rises in pitch and a second that falls, as in Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star), and the occasional unusual and/or repetitive element (think: the opening riff of Smoke on the Water) are pretty darn "sticky." So there you have it — now you're better equipped to spot a sticky song before it's stuck. Sorta.

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How to Get a Song Out of Your Head

If you do happen to get a tune stuck in your head (which you probably will — an August 2008 study found that nearly 92 percent of people get a song stuck in their heads at least once a week), have no fear: Dr. Jakubowski has three simple tricks for combatting earworms:

  1. Listen to the song all the way through (and really "engage" with it while it plays).
  2. Think about or listen to another song to distract yourself.
  3. Try not to think about it and let it fade out of your mind on its own. (Yeah, easier said than done, we know.)

The 9 Most Commonly Named Earworms

Curious which tunes most often stuck in the study participants' heads? Here are the top nine: (Listen at your own risk!)

1.

"Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga

2.

"Can't Get You Out of My Head" by Kylie Minogue

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3.

"Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey

4.

"Somebody That I Used to Know" by Gotye

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5.

"Moves Like Jagger" by Maroon 5

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6.

"California Gurls" by Katy Perry

7.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen

8.

"Alejandro" by Lady Gaga

9.

"Poker Face" by Lady Gaga

(Clearly, Lady Gaga knows how to get in our heads!)

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