We’ve all had the experience of having a song get stuck in our head and absolutely lodge itself there in such a way that we just can’t get it out again for hours, days, maybe weeks on end. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends greatly on the song, of course, but the question remains – just what’s responsible for these earworms, and what goes into making a catchy song?
Patterns and Expectations
Music is a medium that works almost entirely through pattern and innovation. On the one hand, that’s true of almost any art form. Even so, it’s even more pronounced in music, where unless you’re talking atonality (hi, Alban Berg), recognizable riffs and patterns are the name of the game.
This reliance on pattern is part of what’s at the heart of what makes something an earworm. For as much as there’s a hipster trend towards “subverting expectations,” earworms are all about meeting them. As you listen to a song, your brain starts to catch onto the pattern (and if it’s a tightly structured song, it probably catches on pretty quick) and can start to predict what comes next. The more it’s able to do that, and the more those expectations are met, the greater the likelihood that you have an earworm on your hands (or ears.)
That’s one reason why, while we don’t think of classical music as a realm for earworms, so many come from the genre. From classics like Mozart’s Turkish March and the dramatic opening chords to Beethoven’s Fifth symphony to John Williams’ scores for Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Harry Potter, after the first couple of notes, you can start to grasp the overall direction of the themes and subsequent variations thereon.
Repetition and Choruses
A key part of that pattern building is repetition. While repeating the same notes over and over again is a fast track to writing a boring song, balancing repetition with variation is one key to scoring an earworm.
Another key? Upping your game when it comes to the chorus. These are already repeated and given weight with the song, making them perfect earworm fodder.
All of these components combine to make for the earworms we love (or love to hate) in our music.