The catch with catchy songs

By Siski Green , Wednesday 27 February 2013

Why did that song get stuck in your head? Because you like it, say researchers.
Man listening to music on headphonesThe research found that songs you enjoy are more likely to get stuck in your head than obnoxious music

An advertising jingle or pop song is on permanent loop in your brain. You find yourself humming it while you do the washing up, whistling it as you walk down the street. You can’t seem to stop. It’s so irritating! And yet, according to new research from Western Washington University, USA, the songs most likely to get stuck in our heads are ones we know and like!

Researchers surveyed around 300 people, asking them about ‘intrusive song experiences’, ie when they could recall having experienced a song or melody getting stuck in their head. Then they also completed an experimental diary study, where participants were exposed to music and then later asked whether or not a song had become intrusive. And finally the researchers also undertook three laboratory experiments where participants were exposed to music in a controlled environment and then assessed to see how intrusive the songs were, depending on what the participants were doing.

The results revealed that there isn’t a specific type of melody or song that is more likely to get stuck in your head, rather that it’s a personal preference. “If people know and like the music, the music is more likely to return,” says Dr Ira Hyman, lead study author. “But those are questions of individual preference. We do not find any evidence that obnoxious music is more likely to get stuck (although people may remember those painful episodes when they occur).”

Intrusive songs were also more likely to occur during low-cognitive-load activities or high-cognitive load. “Low cognitive load activities are those that don’t require much cognitive effort,” says Dr Ira Hyman, lead study author. “Things that are easy and automatic. Walking, driving, simple household chores. These types of activities leave plenty of cognitive resources for your mind to have other thoughts active.

“High cognitive load tasks are too challenging – to the point where people aren’t succeeding or where it is boring as well as difficult. A classic example would be reading some very dense material – your mind will wander. We gave experimental participants a very difficult puzzle to do – either Sudoku or an anagram puzzle. The songs returned more in the challenging one in which people made fewer correct answers, than in the easier ones. We also found that songs returned more in the non-verbal task (Sudoku) than the verbal task (anagrams).”

One thing the researchers didn’t investigate is how best to remove the intrusive song from your mind. But as the results indicate that easy tasks and overly difficult ones are more likely to keep that song on permanent loop, it might be best to try doing something you enjoy that’s also absorbing. So stop doing the washing up, step away from the Sudoku puzzle and watch some TV... just be sure to turn the volume down when the adverts come on otherwise you’ll be back to square one!

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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