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:
- use repetition as an important organization feature of any song;
- incorporate a song hook that’s easy and fun to sing, and easy for a listener to voluntarily recall; and
- 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.
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