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The Science Behind the Song Stuck in Your Head
With all the tunes out there, why is it stuff like 'My Sharona' that
takes over our brains?
By ROY RIVENBURG
TIMES STAFF WRITER
October 7 2001
Warning: This article could be hazardous to your sanity. It contains
discussions of songs so diabolically annoying that merely reading their
titles--"It's a Small World," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," "My
Sharona"--can cause them to get stuck in your head. Proceed at your own
For years, humans have been tortured by Stuck Tune Syndrome, in which a
seemingly innocuous piece of music lodges in the brain and won't leave.
So far, no reliable cure exists, but a University of Cincinnati professor
hopes to change that. James Kellaris has embarked on a study to figure
out why songs sometimes commandeer people's thoughts.
Kellaris, a marketing teacher who moonlights as a bouzouki player in a
Greek band, theorizes that certain types of music operate like mental
mosquito bites. They create a "cognitive itch" that can only be scratched
by replaying the tune in the mind. The more the brain scratches, the
worse the itch gets. The syndrome is triggered when "the brain detects an
incongruity or something 'exceptional' in the musical stimulus," he
explained in a report made earlier this year to the Society for Consumer
Psychology. To help determine which factors cause songs to stick,
Kellaris surveyed 1,000 students at four universities.
Almost without exception, the respondents had regularly endured stuck
songs or jingles, with the typical episode lasting anywhere from a few
hours (55%) to a full day (23%). Another 17% said the malevolent melodies
persisted several days, and 5% said tunes haunted them longer than a
week. One person claimed--perhaps facetiously--that music from an Atari
260 videogame had been playing in his head "since 1986."
The survey also asked people to identify the stickiest songs. From this
list, Kellaris hopes to pinpoint the characteristics that make a tune
more likely to bore into the brain.
One possibility is excessive repetitiveness. Although all songs contain
repetitious elements, some rely on the technique so heavily that they
might cause the brain to echo the pattern automatically, Kellaris
suggests. Examples: "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," Queen's "We Will Rock
You" and the theme from "Mission: Impossible."
A related factor is musical simplicity. "Children's songs seem more prone
to get stuck than complicated material, such as a Bach fugue," Kellaris
says. "Perhaps the ease with which a tune can be reconstructed" increases
Greg Scelsa of Lancaster, who composes and performs children's music for
the duo Greg & Steve, acknowledges that simplicity and repetition are key
ingredients for making children's songs memorable.
A classic example is "If You're Happy and You Know It," he says. The
melody in each verse builds sequentially from the previous verse. He
demonstrates by singing, "If you're happy and you know it, clap your
hands. If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you're happy
and you know it, then your face will surely show it. If you're happy and
you know it, clap your hands."
With each "happy and you know it" line, the melody changes slightly, "but
in a predictable way," he says. "It's the same pattern, which makes it
Does that also make it more likely to implant itself in someone's
cranium? Probably, he says. Probably? Three hours after Scelsa hangs up,
"If You're Happy and You Know It" has staged a coup d'etat in our brain.
Another possible component of sticky songs is incongruity. If the beat or
lyric defies listener expectations, it might incite a cognitive itch,
Kellaris says. As an example, he mentions the song "America" from "West
Side Story," which has a jarring 12/8 meter.
Then again, maybe melody has nothing to do with Stuck Tune Syndrome, says
Diana Deutsch, a UC San Diego psychology professor who also served as
founding editor of the journal Music Perception.
Perhaps persistent songs are like recurring dreams, she says: "Something
in the back of your mind is trying to tell you something." As proof,
Deutsch cites her own experience. Whenever she can't get a song out of
her head, she contemplates the meaning of the lyrics--and the song
instantly goes away. "Even songs without words can have a larger
meaning," she notes, mentioning anthems and religious music as examples.
OK, but what if the tune circulating in your skull is the theme from "The
Flintstones"? What's the deeper message behind that? Deutsch isn't sure,
but insists that if the human brain has a tendency to play songs over and
over, there must be an evolutionary reason.
If so, evolution should be outlawed. That's because it inevitably favors
the most irritating songs. Let's say the brain wants to send itself an
anti-anxiety message. It could play something like the Beatles' "Let It
Be" or the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby." But nooooo. Instead, the inner
jukebox naturally selects Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
Kellaris isn't surprised. Other research has shown that disturbing
thoughts are usually more memorable and compelling than pleasant ones, he
The first case of Stuck Tune Syndrome is lost to history. If ancient
Romans had "Parvus Orbis Est" (Latin for "It's a Small World") chirping
incessantly in their heads, they were kind enough not to mention it.
"Maybe this is a modern phenomenon," says H.A. Kelly, director of UCLA's
Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. "I can't think of any
literary references to a haunting or persistent melody."
In recent times, the most bizarre cases of Stuck Tune Syndrome involve
elderly men and women. In rare instances, they begin to hallucinate
music, according to reports in medical journals. The songs are "so vivid
that people will look for a nearby radio," says neurologist Oliver Sacks,
author of "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat."
Curiously, many of the auditory hallucinations are hymns or patriotic
tunes, sung by a chorus. Some fade after time; others are permanent. "It
goes 'round and 'round in their heads and they can't get it to go away,"
says UCSD's Deutsch, who has interviewed three sufferers and hopes to
conduct a formal study of the disorder. "One woman went to her doctor and
complained about hearing a hymn because she's not religious."
Sacks says the songs tend to be "music that was popular or important in
the first 15 years of the person's life." In other words, future
generations can expect to hallucinate Eminem, Britney Spears and the
theme from Barney the dinosaur.
Scientists don't know what causes the hallucinations. Some people begin
hearing music after surgery, others after taking too much aspirin. But
most of the patients are partially deaf, so the hallucinations might be
akin to phantom-limb syndrome, Sacks says.
In any case, no cure is known.
Music exerts a powerful grip on the mind, Sacks says. "It's the catchiest
of all stimuli, at least for humans. I don't know whether it's catchy for
monkeys or apes."
As for run-of-the-mill stuck tunes, the remedies vary. In Kellaris'
survey, people outlined several strategies for derailing a nagging
melody. The most obvious is to drive out the offending song by playing or
thinking of another melody. Unfortunately, the substitute tune also might
get stuck. "Some people turn to folkloric remedies," Kellaris says. "One
chews on a cinnamon stick--and swears it works."
Others try to distract their minds by reading out loud or doing another
Finally, there's the "cooties" method, in which a stuck song is
"transferred" to someone else by humming a few bars. Says Kellaris: "It's
like, 'Tag, you're it."'
Of course, the technique isn't practical for all songs. For instance,
composer John Cage's "As Slow as Possible," which is currently being
performed in Germany, begins with a silence that lasts 16 months,
followed by a single chord to be played on Jan. 5, 2003, then another
silence, then another chord on July 5, 2004, and the final chord in 639
Luckily, humming isn't the only way to transfer a song. Simply telling
someone the title might also be enough to insert it into their thoughts.
With that in mind, we feel compelled to mention some of the most common
stuck tunes from Kellaris' survey, all of which infected our brain while
writing this article: "The Macarena," "I'm a Little Teacup," "Gilligan's
Island," the Chili's baby-back ribs jingle, Tchaikovsky's "1812
Overture," Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler," "YMCA," two Dr. Pepper jingles,
Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and the themes from "The Andy Griffith
Show" and "The Odd Couple."
Tag, you're it.
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