The One Crucial Feature of “Earworm” Melodies

A melody that stick in the mind and ear of the listener is the holy grail of songwriting.

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Anslem Douglas - Who Let The Dogs Out - Baha MenWe all know what an earworm is. It’s that bit of melody that gets stuck in our mind to the point where we sing it to ourselves all day long. It becomes tiresome, and is hardly ever described in a positive way. We don’t often hear people say, “I’ve got that new song by Flo Rida in my brain, and the great thing is that I can’t get it out!” In fact, we often see earworms as an annoyance, something that makes us as listeners feel frustrated.

But here’s the funny thing about earworms: we’d love to write one. You have to admit, you’d feel a certain sense of smugness and satisfaction if you overheard someone say, “I’ve got that new song by [insert your name] in my brain, and it’s driving me crazy! I can’t get it out!”

Creating an earworm often means that the song rises in the public consciousness far higher than it normally would, or even should. But that’s not always the case. Some earworm songs are very high quality tunes that anyone would wish to have written.

But because a song has that earworm quality, it goes around and around in our heads, relentlessly torturing us, with little or no regard for the quality of the song.

Some famous ear worm songs, out of a potential list of thousands or more (Listen at your own risk):

Just to reiterate the point, while an earworm  is occasionally a song melody that doesn’t warrant attention, some of the songs in that list are top-notch tunes that any songwriter would give their eyeteeth to have written.

It’s not an accident that these songs have become earworms in today’s music scene. They use the one important characteristic that all earworms must have:

Repetition.

As you’ll notice, it’s the chorus melody that becomes the earworm. Why? It’s because between verse and chorus, it’s the chorus that’s normally constructed of short, repetitious phrases. But constructing a killer earworm requires a bit more than just repetition, since most good songs use repetition as an important construct.

Check out this list if you’re trying to create a song melody that rivets itself into the brain of your listeners:

  1. Create a very short  melodic snippet that’s fun to sing.
  2. Make sure the snippet centres around one main pitch that’s used over and over again (“Macarena”) or uses 3 or 4 notes repeatedly (“Hallelujah”)
  3. Place that snippet high in the voice. That makes it distinctive and grabs people’s attention. (“We Will Rock You”)
  4. Accompany that snippet with a simple but strong chord progression. No more than 2 or 3 chords, and use the tonic chord as a major component.
  5. Don’t be afraid to repeat it – a lot.

Not every song you write will be an earworm. And you shouldn’t often be trying to write an earworm. Like adding a hook to a song, an earworm sometimes has the effect of dumbing a song down. So be careful.

But when it’s done successfully, it can be a fun diversion for you. And as you can see with a song like “Hallelujah”, it doesn’t need to be a silly song. It can be a profound statement.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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