The Science Behind Why This Next Smash Hit Will Get Stuck in Your Head
"I wish you were my first love / Because if you were first, / Then there woulda been / No second, third, or fourth love"
That's the hook from J. Lo's newly leaked single, "First Love." The song is written by Max Martin, the man behind every pop song ever ("... Baby One More Time," "I Want It That Way," "I Kissed a Girl," "I Knew You Were Trouble," "Teenage Dream," "DJ Got Us Fallin' In Love," among many others).
When it's officially released in May, it'll probably hit the top 10. At that point, it will be stuck in your head for the rest of your life.
The song is the perfect earworm, which, in turn, is the perfect description for a song that you can't get out of your head (definitely better than the original "involuntary musical imagery"). At least 90% of the population reportedly experiences earworms once a week; 98-99% reports experiencing one ever.
It's such a unique and powerful experience that there's actually a body of scientific literature behind it.
Some common features have been determined for earworms. Most earworms have poppy, repetitive melodic lines that follow a standard pattern: They begin with long, sustained notes followed by fast runs of short, tight intervals. Earworms typically feature simple, memorable lyrics and quirky rhythmic elements (syncopation especially). From a business perspective, they also boast the kind of wide distribution across multiple mediums, making them inescapable. J. Lo's "First Love" is all of these things.
Some researchers think earworms might have a real function for us as "emotional regulation," helping keep us in a good mood when we're happy and alleviate our sadness when we're down.
Sylvie Hébert, professor at the University of Montreal School of Speech Therapy and Audiology and a member of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research (BRAMS), speculated, "Perhaps the phenomenon occurs to prevent brooding or to change moods." That would certainly explain all this:
Earworms tend to strike when the brain is idle — when we're folding laundry, when we're driving. Activities like this engage our automatic memory processes and free up the higher cognitive faculties. One theory on earworms is that they keep these parts of the brain lightly engaged, so they don't interfere with the simple tasks at hand.
But though it's a common experience, earworms strike certain populations way more than others. Musicians, people who are neurotic, tired or stressed and women are most prone to earworm attacks. Musicians are an easy group to explain. But women remain a mystery to science.
Yet there is a clear way to treat earworms. Researchers at Western Washington University found that solving five-letter anagrams was a successful method of clearing earworms from the brain. They also suggest reading a good novel and Sudoku, as long as it's not too hard of a puzzle. If it's too hard, the brain will reject the activity and will go right back to the J. Lo, or, of course, queen of all earworms, "Paparazzi."