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Large-scale study seeks to find the secret behind musical stickiness

What do Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing, Katy Perry’s California Gurls, and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody have in common?

According to new research — claiming to be the first large-scale study of its kind — they are among the most common earworms, aka those songs with a stickiness that keeps them playing in our heads for long after they ended.

Carried out by Dr. Kelly Jakubowski at the U.K.’s Durham University and her colleagues, the study set out to scientifically measure what it is that makes some songs irresistibly (if sometimes annoyingly) catchy. The results were recently published in the academic journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

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“We sent out an online survey to 3,000 people asking them what tunes they most frequently experienced as earworms,” Jakubowski told Digital Trends. “From this we created a list of the top 100 earworm tunes. We then made a list of 100 ‘non-earworm’ tunes: tunes that had never been named by our research participants, but that were equally popular in terms of their positions in the U.K. music charts. We then compared these earworms and non-earworms to see if there were differences in their melodic features — pitch and rhythm — that could explain why some songs become earworms more than others.”

Earworms tracks turned out to be faster in tempo than non-earworms. They also tended to have generic melodic contours, meaning that the shape of the melodic lines in terms of ups and downs followed common patterns — which Jakubowski theorized may make them easier to remember.

Finally, earworm tunes also tend to comprise unique patterns of intervals, including more leaps or larger leaps than average pop songs. Jakubowski noted that this combination of generic contour and unique internals could provide an “optimal level of complexity” that the brain can latch on to.

In other words, true earworms are not too simple, but not too complex either.

The work is not done yet, though.

“In the near future we hope to look at other features of the tunes beside pitch and rhythm, such as the lyrics, harmonies, and instrumentation, to see how these contribute to ‘earworminess’ as well,” she said. “It would also be interesting to eventually create an algorithm in which you can input a new song and try and predict how catchy it will be and how likely it will be to get stuck in people’s heads, based on features of the melody.”

If Jakubowski packs in her job as an academic in the next couple of years and takes to arenas with a string of No. 1 hit songs, be suspicious.