Researchers at the University of Arizona still have more questions than answers about the songs that get stuck in your head, but they’ve learned a few things in a 10-month study of the “ear worm” phenomenon.
A particular type of repetitive phrase showed up in 30 percent of the ear worms reported by nearly 400 people in an online survey — a short-short-long repetition.
Ethnomusicologist Dan Kruse offered a line from a contemporary pop song by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, as an example: “Uptown funk you up, uptown funk you up.”
Music theorist Don Traut, who has analyzed 150 of the tunes reported in the survey, offered an older example from Jim Morrison and the Doors: “Tried to run. Tried to hide. Break on through to the other side.”
Kruse, Traut and Andrew Lotto, an assistant professor in the School of Language, Hearing and Speech Sciences, teamed up to study “sticky music” with a faculty collaboration grant from the UA’s Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry.
Traut, associate professor at the UA’s Fred Fox School of Music, analyzed 150 of the reported ear worms musically. Lotto and his students tested the musical perception of two dozen volunteers and Kruse interviewed them for a film he made about the study.
Kruse will show parts of the film Wednesday at the Playground Bar & Lounge, 278 E. Congress St., as the team reports its findings. The Confluencenter “Show & Tell” event is free. Drinks are not on the house.
The musical hook that occurs often in the study is one that Traut had already found prevalent in an earlier study he did of catchy pop tunes.
But other music gets caught in the subjects’ heads as well, Traut said.
He was surprised to find little overlap in the tunes — only six mentioned more than once, all of them contemporary pop tunes.
“This really drove home the idea that the ear worm phenomenon is a very personal one. I always find it comforting that we aren’t all walking around with the same two to three songs stuck in our heads.”
Kruse said the study also found that earworms are contagious.
Subjects noted that they and their spouses often found themselves walking around the house, singing the same tune.
Kruse said the people he interviewed reported that being mentally busy kept the ear worms at bay, although one respondent reported just the opposite.
“Music seems to come at my mind when I’m busy with something else as if to say ‘Stop doing that and listen to some music,’” the man told Kruse.
Occasional “ear worms” or “sticky music” were reported by more than 90 percent of the population in two recent studies on the subject. Some people report having them all the time.
While the UA ear worm study hasn’t produced solid conclusions on why they occur, it has produced some hypotheses to test in future studies.
“Our work on this topic has certainly raised as many, if not more, questions than it has answered,” said Traut.