In the first post of this series, we established that repetition is a contributing factor to creating earworms. We also concluded that since popular songs are played the most frequently across various forms of media, that they are the most likely candidates to become earworms. Billboard.com compiles various charts which determine the top selling (and thus most popular) albums and singles for various genres of music. The Billboard 200 calculates weekly album sales from across the country and then ranks them from the highest sellers, to the lowest. Album sales can be attributed to the amount of promotion the record receives and the amount of radio play songs from that album get. The most popular songs receive more radio play; often receiving multiple plays per day, and sometimes even multiple plays per hour. This helps to generate even more album sales, which in turn creates more radio play. Like a dog chasing its tail, album sales determine popularity, and popularity generates album sales. Popular songs are also more likely to appear in advertisements, movies and television shows, giving them an even greater opportunity to become earworms by adding a visual stimuli to the music. Most recently, YouTube phenomenon like “Gangnam Style” and “The Harlem Shake” show how a song’s popularity can transcend different media formats.
So what goes into making a pop-song? Are some songs just destined to grab the attention of the listener, or is there a specific method behind writing a pop-song? If we can find a pattern within the writing process and production of popular songs, we can further break them down to see if individual characteristics of the song itself can help create earworms. Brandon Davids, author of the blog series “Creating a Pop Song” did extensive research to determine if there was indeed a pattern that could be found in pop-music. Davids consulted the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) charts which keep records of the highest selling singles and albums in various genres in Australia. Using the top selling singles from 1960, through to 2011, Davids was able to use data regarding song length, tempo, song form, and chord structure to find averages and common occurrences in the most popular songs in the 52 year range.
Davids found the average tempo of the selected songs to be 116.53 BPM, with the most occurring tempo (or mode) being 128 BPM. The average and mode running times (length) of the same songs were calculated to be three-minutes forty-six seconds (3:46) and three-minutes twenty-five seconds (3:25) respectively.
A song’s tempo can play a significant role in its ability to become an earworm if it is in sync with a persons heart rate. According to Edward R. Laskowski, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at the Mayo Clinic, “A normal resting heart rate for adults, ranges from 60 to 100 beats a minute.” If the tempo of the song can match, or even double a persons heart rate, than there is a good chance that the song could get stuck in your head. Think about going for a run. You are probably more likely to listen to music with a higher tempo while running, and perhaps even at times find yourself running to the beat of certain songs. As your heart rate goes up, your body seems to sync with the music. This syncing could definitely correspond to the creation of earworms as your body is creating a pattern which could later be triggered as a memory.
The common length of a song; however, has been determined over time by the radio stations that play pop-music. If you want your song to get radio play, you are going to have to cut it down to a radio-friendly length. This can be shown by artists releasing “radio edited” versions of their songs. The common belief is that these radio edits are merely for editing out profanity and vulgar language from a song and today that has become the more common place, but a radio edit is also useful when a producer feels that a song could be a hit, and wants to get it as much air time as possible. It is not uncommon for producers to take out entire verses of songs just to get them to the desired radio-friendly length, in hopes of maximum repetition.
Being a musician, I am very interested in seeing what effect, if any; the structure of a song plays on creating earworms. Is there a particular order in arranging the verses? When should the first chorus come in? How often should the chorus repeat? Do I really need the middle eighth or “bridge”? Davids found that among the songs listed in the study that the most common song form is as follows:
Having four choruses in the song can create a lot of repetition, as they are typically the same lyrics repeated over the same chord progression. The verses and middle eighth serve as breaking points between choruses, and the middle eighth, itself breaks up the structural pattern (verse-chorus-verse-chorus) of the song. This breaking of repetition suggests that there may be a certain amount of repetition that we can endure before we simply just turn a song off. If this is the case, then song structure plays a very important role in creating earworms. Too much or not enough repetition within the song can cause the listener to disregard the song, or forget about it completely.
Key and structure tend to go hand in hand during the song writing process. From a songwriters point of view, finding a progression and key that fit the theme of the song is just as important as structuring the song in a way that can maintain a rhythmic flow. Davids noted that “the majority of the number one pop songs selected were written in a major key (82%) and that although there was a broad displacement with regards to a song’s key signature, the keys of ‘E’, ‘C’, and ‘F’ were the most common.” The key of “C” contains all natural notes (that is no sharps – or flats depending on how you look at it). The key of “F” contains one sharp, and the key of “E” four. I can understand how it can be perceived that writing a song in a major key can attribute to it becoming an earworm. Songs writing in a major key generally project bright and full tones. However, I don’t feel that it is completely necessary for a song to be written in a major key as not all earworms are happy and upbeat songs (REM – Losing My Religion is currently playing in my head and serves as a contrast, being a song written in a minor key that has become my earworm). Major keys may be a commonplace in the writing of a pop song, but individually as an attribute, the key in which a song is written should not be considered a determining factor with regards to earworms.
If we look back through both posts in this blog series, repetition plays a large role in how a song becomes an earworm. Memory triggers, a person’s emotional state, and being in a low affective state, such as daydreaming, are also contributing factors, as well as how a song is written and composed. To date there is very little scientific data to support why certain people get earworms. The length of a song can make it radio-friendly, and help create earworms through the repetition. But not all earworms are short, radio-friendly songs. A song’s tempo can resonate and sync with your heartbeat which gives it the ability to trigger memories, or even create new ones; however, there are times when slow and melodic songs can embed themselves in your brain. A songs form focuses again on the repetition aspect of earworms; however, it also shows that there could be such a thing as over repetition. There is no rhyme or reason as to why we get earworms. If we look at the repetition of a pop-song, and what goes into creating a pop-song, we can see how different aspects of the song can help increase its ability to become an earworm. Whether you like it or not, music has the ability to get stuck in your head. We may never know for certain why it happens, or how to stop it from happening? The first two posts in this blog series have looked at and addressed some possible reasons that earworms occur, but before we get into finding out if there is a way to stop them, please allow me one last opportunity to present you with your very own earworm!
The Original Theme Song to America’s Funniest Home Videos
- Blog Series Part One: Get out of my head, Earworm! (jugsbones.wordpress.com)