You’ve had that jingle from the Chili’s commercial in your head for years.
I want my baby-back, baby-back, baby-back…
Why can’t you get it out of your head?!
Those repetitive songs that worm their way into your brain—deemed “earworms” from the German word “ohrwurm," which means "catchy tune."—are irritating to say the least. (Enter the mystified friend: “Seriously, how are you still singing that? Stop!”) The good news is, researchers have a general idea of what causes them and how to treat them.
First things first, a wormy explanation: The general theory is that earworms are caused by an auditory loop in our brains. That parrot-like brain mechanism that lets us repeat things back after we hear them—say, a phone number or address—is the same mechanism that gets us stuck on annoyingly cute jingles.
So hey, as you go completely bonkers, at least you know it’s normal! In fact, a 2003 study reported that 98 percent of us suffer earworms at some point—although, they’re most likely to annoy women, and to occur in the form of a lyrical song versus some other ditty. (You win, Katy Perry. You win.)
"Songs with lyrics are reported as most frequently stuck (74 percent), followed by commercial jingles (15 percent) and instrumental tunes without words (11 percent),” James J. Kellaris, Ph.D., the study’s lead researcher at the University of Cincinnati, wrote in his study. (The jingle stat seems surprisingly lower than expected, doesn’t it? All the more embarrassing that we spent most of the 90’s humming to Kit Kat’s “Gimme a Break.”)
Amazingly, musical minds may be most affected when it comes to earworms, as they’re easily hooked by rhythmic patterns. Believe it or not, DJ Earworm—yes, you heard that right—has made a career out of crafting the perfect earworms for music-loving ears. Those famous Top 100 mash-ups you hear in ‘da club, featuring Britney, Bruno Mars and the like? Yup, that’s DJ Earworm.
“A good tune has just the right amount of repetition,” he says. “Too little and it’s forgettable, and too much and it’s annoying. [It] also strikes the perfect balance of familiarity and newness. if it’s not similar to anything you’ve heard before, you can’t digest it, but if it’s too similar, then it’s not original enough.”
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