An “earworm” is a song element that is so catchy, you’re involuntarily forced to repeat it in your mind—it really gets stuck in your head. Though it’s usually melody or hook, it can also be as simple as a bit of mental imagery. The most recent one I despise is the chorus of “Honey I’m Good,” by Andy Gramer. If anyone starts singing that, it takes up residence in my head for a while.

The study consisted of polling 3,000 people, ages 12-81, for songs they thought caused “involuntary musical imagery” (INMI). The top five results were: “Bad Romance,” by Lady Gaga (named 33 times). “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” by Kylie Minogue (24 times). “Don’t Stop Believing,” by Journey (21 times). “Somebody That I Used to Know,” by Goyte (the newest song in the top 9 songs; 21 times). “Moves Like Jagger,” by Maroon 5 (19 times).

They then compared the top 100 answers to 100 songs that were never mentioned by any participant to see what the differences are.

In general, a catchy song has a melodic curve common to music globally and a faster average tempo. Being more popular and recent is another factor which adds to the likelihood of a song being classified as INMI. The catchier songs also have “less common average gradients between melodic turning points,” when compared to an average of other popular music.

For the full study, click here. Results of the study begin on page 7 of the PDF.

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