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Lady Gaga, Rigoletto, Ode to Joy and Eliza's Aria? Earworms, all of them

Basically doing the same job … getting us to hear their music again and again and again. Lady Gaga and Beethoven.
Basically doing the same job … getting us to hear their music again and again and again. Lady Gaga and Beethoven. Composite: Getty/Alamy

La, la, la, la, la, la-la laaaa ... Can’t get it out of your head? 90% of us get earworms – those fragments of tunes that get stuck on a loop in your brain and which are impossible to dislodge for hours, days – and in some pathological cases, months and years. The German word for them, “Ohrwürmer”, translates literally as “earworms”, which rather brilliantly conveys the idea of a piece of music as an insectoid invader burrowing its way through your ears until it infects your brain and echoes round and round, beyond your control. That’s why they’re also known as brain worms, or simply sticky music. Just to name a few that have haunted me over the last few weeks, I can’t get the theme tune to Black Beauty nor the opening of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances nor the cues for Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure for the Nintendo DS out of my head, to say nothing of the jingle for British Airways – actually by French composer Léo Delibes. Nor the Hovis advert with the bicycle and the cobbled street and the tune from Dvorák’s New World Symphony: round and round they go like a wheel within a wheel. And now The Windmills of Your Mind is stuck in my cranium …

Where do they come from? Why do our minds get uncontrollably stuck on repeat with certain random fragments of a song, symphony, or video game? Mark Twain imagined a society eaten up by these earworms as early as 1876: in a story originally called A Literary Nightmare, the protagonist is helplessly possessed by some “jingling rhymes”: “My head kept humming … I drifted downtown, and presently discovered that my feet were keeping time to that relentless jingle.” Even asleep, he “rolled, tossed, and jingled all night long”. The story gets worse: in a pre-David Cronenberg vision of a Scanners-style nightmare, Twain’s narrator infects his pastor with the tune, who impregnates the whole congregation with this devilish musical ear-wig.

The neurologist Oliver Sacks used that story in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain to discuss how he thinks earworms take us over. There’s a difference between the kind of benign haunting that might happen after you’ve heard your favourite band and hooks from their best tracks replay in your mind, and the more problematic earwigging that happen when these memories morph into a pit of uncontrollable musical worms, when, as Sacks says, the music seems to be trapped in “a tight neural circuit from which it [can] not escape”. That might last a day or two for most of us, but for one of Sacks’s patients, Rose R, a series of just 14 notes from Verdi’s Rigoletto were on repeat inside her head for 43 years, so much so that the music became a physical entity that she imagined she could navigate – “a musical quadrangle” that only brain chemistry-altering drugs could shift.

In research that came out last year, academics have looked deeper into what musical factors make a tune more likely to turn into an earworm. It must neither be too simple, nor too complex, explains Dr Kelly Jakubowski. It must also have a largely predictable or symmetrical melodic contour, but also feature a memorable quirk, such as an unexpected jump down or leap up between notes, something that helps it stick in our minds. And according to the research, it’s likely to be a Lady Gaga tune that you’re now humming – since Gaga had three of the Top 10 earworms in 3,000 British brains, with Bad Romance in the No 1 spot.

Jakubowski reckons there’s an evolutionary advantage to earworms. Early in our species’ history, she suggests that humans used music to lodge words, ideas, and information in our brains in ways that we can’t help but remember, exactly as we do as schoolchildren today with the alphabet song and times tables.

Composers of music for adverts, games, and TV theme tunes have turned the composition of earworms into a fine art, so that we instantly associate a programme or a product with a collection of notes. Or you can turn a fragment from an existing piece into a monstrously effective earworm for a whole company, such as Elena Kats-Chernin’s Eliza’s Aria from her ballet Wild Swans, better known as the former signature tune for Lloyds TSB: it’s the one with those soprano voices that goes: da-da-da-DA-da-da, da-da-da-DA-da-da – and repeat, ad infinitum, as it goes round your head in endless loops of maddening flocks of swans and banking logos and black horses – and that reminds me of Black Beauty – argh! Not again!

But there’s much more than the cynicism of ad makers when it comes to manipulating our evolutionary propensity to hang on to the muscle memory of a tune. Classical composers do it – or are trying to do it – all the time, since the whole project of the majority of classical music is based on the idea that we remember the melodies that composers write in their symphonies, operas, or sonatas, and we follow the progress of these themes over the course of the whole piece as they are repeated and transformed. If we can’t remember them, we’ve lost our place in the piece, which means that everyone from Mozart to Mahler is in the earworm business. We know how delighted Mozart was when he heard people whistling tunes from The Marriage of Figaro in the street: his earworms had successfully lodged in people’s brains. Haydn knew he had written an earworm for the ages when he composed the tune in 1797 that would become the Austrian and German national anthems, and the reason that Beethoven took so much care over the Ode to Joy theme in the finale of his Ninth Symphony was that he needed this hymn to universal brother-and-sisterhood to be memorable enough to become an earworm for the whole world. He succeeded, too.

Scientists are divided over how to rid ourselves of our earworms. Some recommend listening through to the end of the song or the piece that your particular music-worm comes from, thus exorcising its power by hearing it in context rather than on a never-ending loop. Others say we’ve no choice but to give ourselves over to the torment of the Ohrwürmer, and know that when Black Beauty ends, there will always be another to replace it. Oh no: not those piccolos – Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, back in my brain again. Damn you, Ronnie Hazlehurst, and your earworming genius!

•Tom Service presents the Listening Service with Jarvis Cocker on earworms on Sunday 15 October at 5pm live from the Wellcome Collection, London.

This article titled "Lady Gaga, Rigoletto, Ode to Joy and Eliza's Aria? Earworms, all of them" was written by Tom Service, for theguardian.com on Friday 13 October 2017 08.00am

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