Don Traut, an associate professor in the Fred Fox School of Music at the University of Arizona, is a music theorist who specializes in the analysis of Igor Stravinsky’s music.
His mental jukebox plays ’80s pop tunes.
Andrew Lotto runs the Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience Lab in the UA’s Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences. When a song gets stuck in his head these days, it’s likely to be contemporary rap or pop — think a head full of Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z.
Dan Kruse is the local host and news anchor of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and a student of ethno-musicology. Classic pop tunes float unbidden through his brain, mixed with the occasional snatch of classical music.
Kruse recently enlisted Lotto and Traut in a study of these “ear worms,” or involuntary musical imagery — phenomena that annoy or entertain about 91 percent of the human population to varying degrees, two recent studies found.
“Ear worms,” or “sticky music,” as neurologist Oliver Sacks termed them in his book “Musicophilia,” are not well-understood. They are not a new phenomenon, but Sacks mused in The New Yorker that “our current culture of nonstop musical exposure” has made them more universal.
Studies have quantified the prevalence of “ear worms,” a phrase taken from the German term for them — Ohrwürmer — but haven’t answered what to Kruse is the most interesting question: Why do they stick around? So he proposed a multidisciplinary study to the UA’s Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry and got Traut and Lotto to sign on as investigators.
Traut, who has written about musical “hooks” in popular songs, thinks the stickiness has something to do with musical patterns. He will examine the songs identified by participants in the survey in an attempt to find out what they are. “If I don’t find patterns, that would be interesting too,” he said.
“It could be harmonic, or rhythmic or melodic or texture. Is it the loudest part of the song? The fullest? Instruments, voice and lyrics could definitely be important.”
Kruse has a lifelong interest in music that he finally pursued academically after a career in corporate communications, where he made films on such interesting subjects as the technical standards for hose-dividers in fire trucks.
He wants to create a short documentary film about the study, its investigators and its participants. His musical interests range widely. He has pursued African rhythms in Ghana and taught a course at the UA on the history of rock ’n’ roll.
Lotto’s approach to the question is analytical.
He jokes that “I will do my best to suck the life out of it” by reducing survey answers to mathematical formulas. “I will create a spreadsheet and do a massive statistical analysis that doesn’t give a crap what the questions were.”
Lotto hasn’t yet formulated a hypothesis for the study, but he’s interested in answering the question, “Why music?”
“Why do all cultures have music as an important aspect of their society?” he asked. “And why do we tend to get ear worms of music but not speech or other environmental sounds? From an auditory scientist’s standpoint, music is a complex sound system made up of pitches and intensities … but so is speech, so are animal calls, so are auditory warning signals. What gives music such a preferential status in our lives, given that it provides no obvious evolutionary advantage?”
The study has already begun with a questionnaire, designed by Lotto with input from his colleagues. It gathers essential data about the occurrence of ear worms and also asks for volunteers to participate in further studies. Lotto is enlisting some of his students to examine their own ear worms and pinpoint where they stop and start. It is generally believed that snatches of music, rather than entire songs or symphonies, play in our heads.
It’s easy these days to establish those start-and-stop points, Lotto said, because most of the music stuck in our heads is available in video performances on YouTube and other Internet sites.
The stickiness may even have a visual component now. It’s impossible to think about the short title of Traut’s academic paper on musical hooks — “Simply Irresistible” — without seeing singer Robert Palmer surrounded by MTV models in short dresses.
Lotto and Traut don’t expect to pin down the answers with this short study — one year and $20,000 — but both have been drawn into the topic and expect to keep exploring.
An ongoing study with thousands of respondents by the Music, Mind and Brain group at Goldsmiths, University of London, in cooperation with BBC radio, sought to identify some common features of the ear-worm experience. It has found, so far, that the experiences are “highly idiosyncratic.”
In one survey reported by Goldsmiths researchers, of 1,449 songs stuck in respondents’ heads, only 75 songs were named more than once.
The lack of commonality may make it difficult to find patterns, Traut said.
“It’s kind of fascinating, but it could cause a problem for me if I’m trying to draw conclusions about the music.”
Researchers at Goldsmiths, and in a 2010 study at the University of Reading, found that ear worms occurred most frequently in people who reported a strong appreciation of music. These weren’t musicians or trained singers, per se, just people who like to sing.
They also found that it’s not the annoying tune but the familiar, simple, “overlearned” tune that gets stuck in your head.
Stravinsky might be the target of Don Traut’s focused, academic study, but the song in his head is more likely something “Simply Irresistible.”