Earworm Melodies

Recent Research on Earworm Melodies

As you know, an earworm melody is one which gets stuck in the mind of the listener which, even with great effort, won’t easily relinquish its grip. When we’re experiencing a melody as an earworm, we don’t usually describe it as a pleasant experience.

There’s an interesting recent study on earworm melodies, “Dissecting an Earworm: Melodic Features and Song Popularity Predict Involuntary Musical Imagery.” It’s a fairly technical bit of research, and I’m still in the process of reading through it.


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How are we to differentiate between an earworm and any typical hook-based pop song. We know that songs are successful if listeners experience a hook which they can remember easily and want to hear them again. So how is that much different from an earworm?

The answer lies in the involuntary aspect of earworms: they annoyingly get stuck in our minds. In fact, the paper I’ve cited above uses the term INMI when referring to earworms. The ‘IN’ of that acronym stands for “involuntary,” and of course that’s a key ingredient to a song becoming an earworm. INMI stands for INvoluntary Musical Imagery.

In my reading so far, I’ve picked up the following, with my own comments in square brackets:

  • A song is more likely to become an earworm if it uses notes of longer durations and smaller pitch intervals. [This isn’t much different from any standard song hook. Chorus hooks typically feature longer notes, and are relatively easy to sing because of their simple structure: mainly stepwise with occasional simple leaps. The chorus from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is a good example.]
  • An earworm melody is usually faster in tempo. [Nonetheless, I recently found that the very slow section in the middle of the Genesis tune “One For the Vine” (from “Wind & Withering”) suddenly became very “earwormy” to me. It features a quirky turn in the tonality which I think was the part I couldn’t let go of.]
  • An earworm melody uses “established norms.” [In other words, it shows considerable similarities to other melodies of its genre.]
  • Notwithstanding the above point, a strange melody might become an earworm if it’s not just different, but highly unusual. [This may account for the great number of people who describe the operatic section of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen) as being an earworm. Comparing it to other pop songs, I think we’re pretty safe in describing the “I see a little silhouetto of a man, Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango” section as more than a little eccentric, both in melodic content, instrumentation, lyrics and more!
  • Songs that are well-known and popular, getting lots of airplay, are more likely to become earworms than other melodies with similar characteristics that don’t happen to be well-known. [In other words, an earworm tends to be a song that is enjoyed by many, whether you consider its earwormishness or not (as I now coin new words for the lexicon!)]
  • Singers are more likely to experience songs as earworms than non-singers.

Regarding that last point, that’s the closest the paper has come (in my reading so far) to describe the earworm phenomenon as being reliant on the listener for its existence. I’ve believed that earworms are not solely dependent on the structure of the song: it requires a listener who is prone to involuntarily recalling bits of songs.

No one should want to write an earworm, if only for the involuntary requirement. I think anyone trying to write good music in the pop genres are going to want to:

  1. use repetition as an important organization feature of any song;
  2. incorporate a song hook that’s easy and fun to sing, and easy for a listener to voluntarily recall; and
  3. find ways to pull all song elements (melody, chords, lyrics, instrumentation, production, etc.) together. The best songs are the ones that create strong partnerships between all components.

I welcome your own experience and thoughts on earworms, and would also be interested in knowing if you’ve come up with reliable ways to diminish the affect of a relentless earworm.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ shows you how to layer several hooks within the same song — a crucial but often neglected aspect of song success. Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”

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7 Comments

  1. And earworm melody is a part of the whole melody, usually, and for me, it is often about instrumentation and post-production sound shaping more than the note alone. A few bars of simple , pleasing notes with corresponding chord progressions, incorporating, as you mention, a few simple steps with a leap or two, often becomes an earworm because of its unique texture and timbre imparted by the instrumentation, the voice of the sound itself. Again, Michael Jackson… the beats and melodies were catchy enough, but what made them earworms was the unique sythesized sounds used to play them. Or think Enya’s “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)”.. those synthesized pizzicato chords that open the song (generated by altering the Roland D-50 synthesizer’s “Pizzagogo” patch) makes it an earworm, for me. The same chords rendered on a guitar would be blasé. It was a novel and pleasing sound,

    • Hi Michael:

      Yes, the research shows that oddities in music make it more likely that a song will take on earworm qualities. I think the aspect that’s important is the mind of the listener. I think earworms all have particular qualities that get them stuck in our brains, but the research is showing, more and more, that some people are more prone to experiencing earworms than others.

      Thanks very much for your comment, Michael.

      -Gary

  2. Hi Gary! Earworm melodies are also found in songs that only use that ONE melody! It’s a great technique that I think you should make an article about. Check out:

    Gordon Lightfoot – Early Morning Rain: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yU17rDyq_RQ

    This classic song uses only one melody repeated with different pitch variations in all the verses!

    Gordon Lightfoot – Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vST6hVRj2A

    Like the above song, this also uses only one melody. But with less variation and sometimes repeated verbatim but with different lyrics in each phrase.

    Both songs still are very successful even though they don’t have the typical verse-chorus-etc. structure and it would wise for modern songwriters to take note of this.technique

    • Hi Gordy:

      I’ve not seen any research that would support the notion that songs with only one melody are more likely to be earworms. If you’ve seen that research, let me know.

      Cheers,
      -Gary

      • Hi Gary, I have come across the particular research in Wayne Chase’s book “How Music Really Works” and later took his SongMatrix course in which he handed out the particular results using comparative and experimental research:

        https://www.songmatrix.com/

        I don’t have the P-values showing their statistical significance but once his new book is released it will explain in more detail. The idea is that by having only one or very few melodies, it frees up our short-term memory and allows our brain’s perceptual bandwidth (an evolved trait that is hard-wired from birth, and cannot be increased by listening to complex music such as jazz or progressive metal, contrary to erroneous beliefs from certain musicians and fans) to fully absorb variations in the pitch, lyrical content, and chord progressions, etc. The most well-known folk songs from generations ago have very few unique melodies in the song (Nottamun Town, Danny Boy, Amazing Grace, etc. etc.)

        It’s the concept of optimizing “unity vs variety” and applies across both musical, rhythmic, and lyrical domains of a song. Just another example, having only one or few melodies also allows the songwriter more freedom to create a complex chord progression and deal with more complex lyrical subject matter. Whereas if a songwriter includes more unique melodic patterns in a song, they have to compensate by simplifying chord progressions, simplify lyrical content, and other things before the brain’s short term memory capabilities are overloaded and the pleasure/emotional parts of the brain don’t respond to the song anymore, despite the audience applauding due to social factors.

  3. Hi Gary I would say that the Operatic part of Bohemian Rhapsody

    Coupled with the ending re the lyrics

    Thunderbolt and Lightning very very frightening
    Galileo Figaro —– is that part of the song that draws us in

    Eccentric like YES! but surely that’s what made Freddie its
    composer such an innovative writer , giving us the Unexpected
    as opposed to the Obvious .

    • Hi Peter:

      Yes, you’re quite correct. The issues that I was discussing refer to the involuntary aspect of music recall. In other words, I believe it’s quite possible for a song to be excellent (and I’ve always loved the music and lyric for “Bohemian Rhapsody”) while also finding that it sits in one’s brain in an involuntary kind of way.

      Thanks as always for your comment,
      -Gary

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