“Uptown Funk,” and inside the science behind an “earworm”

Mikaela Krimm

“This hit, that ice cold, Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold. This one, for them hood girls, them good girls, straight masterpieces.”

You sang that in your head. How could you not when that song is everywhere: unavoidable, inescapable, inexorably pounding its rhythms into human minds in malls, cars and restaurants. 

But the worst is that even when the song isn’t playing, it is. In our heads, the particulars of the melody and the mellifluous vocals of Bruno Mars all are perfectly replicated creating a fragmented facsimile of “Uptown Funk” we can take with us everywhere. Which, depending on your feelings toward the song, could be a good or bad thing. The universal question, however, is why? Yes, songs get stuck in our head, but when one takes pause and considers the science behind such a phenomenon, the intricacies of a typically unconsidered dilemma are brought to light. 

A recent study conducted by Victoria Williamson, a British visiting professor at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Switzerland, analyzed over 50 musical characteristics to determine which songs are the catchiest. These features included notes with longer durations but smaller pitch intervals, meaning the range of melody is limited and there’s more time spent on each note. According to Williamson, such traits are what make songs easier to sing, even for those without training in music. The songs most likely to stick in your head also tend to be predictable, so that the brain can repeat them with certainty, of its own accord. 

But why does the brain repeat music to begin with? Research has pointed to the motor cortex, which controls the planning of future physical activity. When people listen to music, they are imaginatively participating. Human beings do this all the time–consider the split second between sitting at a table and getting up to walk across the room: somewhere in there, your brain had to envision the action of moving your body, and the motor cortex is where that decision takes place. Such is the case with music–the brain anticipates upcoming chord changes and latches on. 

Hearing a song multiple times adds to its indelibility as well. However, certain people are more likely than others to find themselves replaying music in their heads during moments of silence. According to Williamson, people with neuroticism and non-clinical levels of OCD undergo the internal singing of music, an experience often referred to as an earworm, with greater frequency. Such people have more repeated thought processes in general, and this tendency is mirrored in the way their brains replay music. 

The level of enjoyment one derives from the experience of an earworm depends highly on the situation. Although fatigue, stress and boredom tend to initiate the playing of songs in the head, the action itself can, in turn, spawn these emotions.              However, earworms tend to be pleasurable as opposed to aggravating. According to James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati, only 30 percent of earworms are classified by their victims as “annoying.” Human beings are more inclined to recall negatives, so when questioned, people will remember the one song that got stuck in their head that bothered them, not the four or five that kept polite company while they went about their business. 

What triggers the onset of an earworm? As mentioned before, a song that is overplayed is likely to lodge itself in your brain. However, it can also be brought on by association. For example, when I was in Paris I was humming “Tom Ford” with uncomfortable regularity (thanks to the line “Paris where we been/ pardon my Parisian”). That song is 100 percent chill, so I wasn’t particularly bothered by it, but what if I had been? Scientists involved in studies of the subject have struck upon a number of methods for expelling unwanted hooks from your head.      

Many of these are common knowledge, but having scientific vindication never hurts. Method one, according to Dr. Williamson’s study, is distraction in the form of another song. The most popular antidote tunes include “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin and Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” but admittedly these are the songs of a slightly older generation. The replacement melody of choice depends on one’s individual musical background and preference .

Method two is distraction in the form of words, to cognitively challenge oneself (through, for example, a crossword puzzle or verbal conversation) enough that the intrusive ability of aggravating songs becomes limited. The final method is to listen to the sticky song in its entirety, so that the brain has the chance to play out the patterns and come to some resolution. 

When I was younger I mused over the possible invention of a device that could be inserted in the brain and would enable the user to play music not through headphones, or through speakers, but directly into the mind itself. I thought it would be the niftiest thing in the world, to take such a public expression of creativity, another individual’s artful creation, and turn it into a deeply personal interaction. 

What I didn’t realize is that such a device already exists: it’s hardwired into our psyche. Every time we find ourselves thoughtlessly humming a verse, we are engaging in an intimate form of communication with the artist who wrote that music. And as annoying as it may be to have a song “stuck in our heads,” it’s pretty cool that our heads are capable of doing that in the first place.

That being said, I’ll be surprised if, after reading this, you don’t get sick of mentally chanting “Uptown Funk.” “Girls, hit your hallelujah (whoo).