How earworms, those annoying musical fragments that repeat in our heads, may trigger memories and calming emotions

the brain, a child on the autism spectrum, brushing teeth, memory aid

In the dark corners of the internet hides a playlist of some of the most torturous, addictive music known to man. That’s right, Spotify, SoundCloud and Apple Music all have playlists of Baby Shark remixes. Do do, do do, do do, do.

Would you walk 500 miles to get away from that tune? Will your poker face crack the 1,000th time it plays in your head? Does it remind you of somebody that you used to know? Do you value the sound of silence?

You aren’t alone. These so-called earworms – gross – are annoying, but useful; new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in June helps illuminate the exact function these loops play.

“We can hear just a fragment of a piece of music and it can take us back. How does that happen?” said Petr Janata, a researcher at the University of California, Davis.

Music therapists and marketers take advantage of music’s ability to trigger memory. An amateur musician, Janata says earworms help your brain encode and parse through daily memories and sensations that may not have anything to do with the exact moment you first heard the tune.

As it plays over and over in your head, you may come to associate memories or sensations different from those you experienced on first listening.

These musical fragments become a kind of sorting mechanism that triggers clearer recall at a later date, especially when the tune plays once more, according to the study, titled “Spontaneous mental replay of music improves memory for incidentally associated event knowledge.”

Janata and co-author Benjamin Kubit aren’t the first to study earworms, also known as involuntary musical imagery, or INMI. Previous research has probed the characteristics of songs that are likely to become earworms, whether certain personality types are more prone to the phenomenon and whether listening to unfamiliar catchy music interferes with concentration. (Spoiler: of course it does.)

In general, musicians and scientists have concluded that faster music with simple, repetitive melodies and harmonies are more likely to loop in the brain.

“Short melodic phrases combined with a perfect harmonic progression are perfect for this,” said Pittsburgh composer Nancy Galbraith, whose music is regularly performed by ensembles around the city and country.

Galbraith differentiates between musical “hooks”, a fragment designed to catch the ear, and earworms. Many earworms come from song hooks, but not all hooks become earworms. She pointed to the hit musical Hamilton as a recent example of a work filled with effective hooks, many of which evolved into earworms.

My Shot still pops into Galbraith’s head from time to time, she said, along with the theme song from the Netflix show House of Cards.

the brain, a child on the autism spectrum, brushing teeth, memory aid

Petr Janata is a researcher at the University of California, Davis.

“Tchaikovsky was a really great hook writer, but we don’t really call them that in classical music,” she said. “Personally I don’t associate them with anything specific. It’s more of an emotion or sensation.”

Music presenters and advertisers already capitalise on music’s ability to conjure specific emotions or sensations. Rishi Bahl, musician, founder of Pittsburgh’s pop/punk/alternative Four Chord Music Festival and a professor of marketing at La Roche University, said there’s been an upsurge in nostalgia for bygone musical eras in recent years, and music presenters are actively moulding new talent to comply.

This can often involve pushing songwriters to create hooks or earworms reminiscent of past styles.

the brain, a child on the autism spectrum, brushing teeth, memory aid

Tchaikovsky was a master of creating audio ‘hooks’. Photo: Bettmann Archive

“It’s becoming more pervasive,” he said. “In the end, record labels are marketers at heart. It’s not about distribution today thanks to streaming. It’s about marketing.”

Hooks and Billboard-charting hits tend to have similarly pop-like elements, and leaning too far into the science behind those elements can create a homogeneity in sound and style that can seem artistically bereft. (“Man, it’s depressing,” Bahl said.)

Popular music has always had this issue to an extent. Different genres still rely on largely the same simple chord progressions and melodic shapes. The uniqueness comes from the subtle changes in vibe and vibrato and instrumentation.

Music therapists already use music’s ability to trigger a range of emotional states with their patients. According to Brittany Meyer, a neurologic music therapist at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, music’s ability to activate multiple parts of the brain simultaneously makes it a useful tool for rebuilding and strengthening pathways in the brain.

“Repetition is really great for creating earworms,” Meyer said. “And we know that music is great for both encoding and retrieving memories.”

She explained that music can trigger reaction in the hippocampus, which plays a role in learning and memory, and the amygdala, which is involved in experiencing emotions. So listening to the same music at a later date can trigger the same emotions.

the brain, a child on the autism spectrum, brushing teeth, memory aid

Earworms can even help with getting an unwilling child to brush their teeth. Photo: Shutterstock

Meyer also said that a patient’s prior associations with a tune are more important than the inherent characteristics of the tune itself. For example, she cited an experience working with a child on the autism spectrum who didn’t want to brush his teeth. Meyer made up a song about brushing teeth to the tune of a song he liked. Then his mother could sing with him every night, which helped him remember to brush his teeth.

Janata wonders how long it will be before this research is used in a more targeted way. Many people above a certain age can recall a few jingles from their childhoods and the products they advertised, and some educators use songs or tunes to help memorise information.

But the possibilities don’t stop there. Janata’s recent study found that music can function as a targeted memory aid. That means learning names or new faces or places could one day be paired with an individual tune, almost like a personalised musical tag.

Janata is exploring that idea in his research and attempting to observe how the brain responds to musical stimuli and earworms using neural imaging technology.

“It raises the question: can this be deployed in a targeted way, taking novel pieces of music [and] pairing earworms with must-be-remembered information? Could this serve as a memory aid?”

“That’s what our current experiments are trying to show and see whether that’s possible.”

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