Fwd: The Science Behind the Song Stuck in Your Head

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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?



    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
    its adhesiveness.

    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
    more memorable."

    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.

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
    see: http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit

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