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The Science Behind Earworms: Why Certain Songs Get Stuck in Your Head

‘Tis the season for shopping and baking and random holiday songs that get stuck in your head. More than 90% of us have experienced what scientists call involuntary musical imagery, otherwise known as “earworms.” Earworms are musical melodies or lyrics that you just can’t get out of your head. The tunes that get stuck in people's heads are often advertising jingles, television theme songs, pop songs, children's songs and yes… holiday music.

Generally, earworms can be about 15-20 seconds long that loop over and over again. Your brain experiences positive psychological effects when reintroduced to something it already knows, like a familiar beat, melody or chorus. This time of year, we seem to hear the same holiday songs over and over again.

Certain songs are stickier than others, and so more likely to “auto repeat” in your head. In a 2016 study, researchers found these songs were faster and simpler in melodic contour (the pitch rose and fell in ways that made them easier to sing). And the music also had some unique intervals between notes that made the song stand out. The catchiest tunes were “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, and, ironically, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” by Kylie Minogue.

Any kind of music can generate an earworm, but holiday music is even stickier because it taps into memories. Tonal patterns and memorable life events are processed in overlapping regions of the prefrontal cortex. Holiday music is ingrained into our brains’ wiring because we associate songs with memories –like making cookies with Grandma while listening to Bing Crosby sing White Christmas.

Christmas music, like pop hits, delivers exactly what you expect and the brain likes that. It’s why popular music stations play the same series of songs over and over again and why most of the top hits contain a very limited range of lyrics. It’s also why we hear the same holiday classics each year. All that repetition has a greater likelihood of making it into our musical structure memory bank which activates the reward center of the brain.

Fun Fact: Other studies have also linked the frequency of earworms with the size and shape of our brains. If you frequently can’t get a song out of your head, your brain may be thicker in the areas responsible for auditory perception and voluntary music imagery.

Experts say that the best way to get rid of an earworm is to listen to a different song in full, sing God Save The Queen, or vigorously chew a piece of gum.

So, rock on this holiday season and enjoy the music!

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