Get Out of My Head!

Earworms bore in and won't let go

Feb 2, 2005 at 4:00 am
Her name is Annie. She's Norwegian and beautiful, not an unusual combination. She's big in Europe right now. And if you've heard "Chewing Gum," the lead single from her debut, Anniemal, you hate her. But you can't get her out of your head.

"Oh no/Oh no/You're not the one/You think you're chocolate/But you're chewing gum." Over a plinking beat, in a sing-song voice, Annie repeats metaphors on the level of "I've got a brand-new pair of roller skates/You've got a brand-new key." The song is Kool-Aid; it's cotton candy. It's moronic, sophomoric, simplistic and dull. And it's been at the top of your playlist ever since you downloaded it.

What else can you do? You've tried a tinfoil hat, but it's too late. That song has bored its way in and set up shop in your cranium. It's stomped out the names of the clouds that you learned in grade school: "Circu.... Communglious? Chew-ing gum! Arrgh!" You can't name a president between Hamilton and Lincoln: "Smithee? Garbington? Oh no! You're not the one!"

The songs lodged in your head have been floating around long enough to obtain a name -- earworms -- and scientists to study them. One such academic is James J. Kellaris, professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati. His paper "Dissecting Earworms: Further Evidence on the 'Song-Stuck-in-Your Head' Phenomenon" put him in the national spotlight as the foremost expert on these damnable tunes (which, on some days, must feel like being the nation's most famous proctologist).

While most everyone has had a song stuck in their head at one point or another, Kellaris says some people who are more likely to get infested.

"According to my research, almost everyone has experienced the annoyance of getting a song stuck in their head at some time," Kellaris explains in an e-mail. (The professor is mute. He can hear, so he's as susceptible to earwoms as anyone. He just can't talk about 'em.) "People who are prone to worry (mild neuroticism) report experiencing earworms more frequently and being more bothered by the experience. Not surprisingly, musicians are bitten by earworms more often than non-musicians."

While any song can get stuck in your head, Kellaris adds that "there are features of songs that make them 'catchy' and thus likely to become an earworm, such as simplicity, repetition and incongruity."

Incongruity, as Kellaris uses the term, means "something odd or unexpected, such as an odd meter or extra beat in a measure, a deceptive cadence, a resolution that violates the expected pattern, even a force-fit of lyrics to a melody." The professor uses English words force-fit into Greek Orthodox chants as an example, but you can also hear it in the way Snoop Dogg twists the word "hot" in "Drop It Like It's Hot" or the quick, stuttering jump from verse to chorus in "Chewing Gum."

Seems easy, huh? Take a little simplicity and repetition, add a dash of incongruity, and presto: "Who Let the Dogs Out?" The worst earworms bore down so deep that all it takes is reading the song's title to set one off (did you hear the "Who? Who-who?" chant just then?). Just listing them sets off Hell's own jukebox in your head: The Chili's baby-back-ribs commercial. "Milkshake." "YMCA." "Macarena." The old Wehrenberg Theaters theme song.

Plenty of people will tell you that this is all pop music is: an evil, steaming factory where these three elements are mixed with sex appeal to shift unit after unit of what amounts to ear heroin. Kellaris says that while "marketers should be motivated to create earworms, because it buys them free airplay (inside people's heads)," it isn't as easy as that for musicians. It's not just like an evil scientist's lab, after all.

"Conspiracy theories make for a good read," says Kellaris, "but my reaction is 'nah.' Earworms drive people crazy, and we make fun of such songs. Music producers don't really want that to happen to their products."

Don't they? It's difficult to see why musicians wouldn't want to get as deeply stuck in your head as a jingle does. Kellaris' explanation: burnout. "Think of a song following an inverted-U-shaped curvilinear path," he suggests. "Music producers want to push their wares up the hill to the apex, but not over the hill into a downward slide. Hits are at the apex. Earworms are on the downhill side of the graph."

Here's where it gets tricky. Kellaris may be right to say that an artist doesn't want to force that much exposure on a listener. It seems to create one-hit wonders who are disposed of as soon as we collectively pluck the worm out of our ears. But to a record label, who may not care about nurturing the career of the Baha Men ("Who Let the Dogs Out?"), why not push it all the way? After all, somebody made money off "Macarena."

Perhaps creating a pop song is like mixing a cocktail: both science and art. Add the correct elements in pleasing amounts, and you have something catchy and lovely, like "She Loves You" or "Dancing Queen." Pour with a heavy hand, and you have "Chewing Gum" -- the Long Island iced tea of pop music. You wince a little even though it goes down smooth, you'll have more than you should, and you will feel it in the morning.

Chew-ing gum. Stop it!