The Science Behind Insanely Catchy Choruses (And Why You'll Be Humming Lady Gaga Songs Forever)
If you've so much as glanced at Billboard's list of 100 Greatest Choruses of the 21st Century, you know it doesn't take much for one (or 100) of these songs to start playing on loop in your brain. Having a song stuck in your head is such an ordinary occurrence that most of us take it for granted that certain songs are more likely to get lodged in your brain for days than others.
But why? And do songs that get stuck in your head share compositional characteristics that less-catchy ones don't? These are some of the questions a 2010-2013 study at Goldsmiths, University of London delved into as part of the Earworm Project. Surveying 3,000 people, the study produced a list of the most-commonly cited earworms in pop music, as well as revealing a number of things about compositional elements catchy songs tend to share.
One takeaway, however, was something you didn't need a PhD to tell you: Lady Gaga songs are catchy AF.
"In terms of artists coming up a lot, Lady Gaga won in this regard," the study's lead author Kelly Jakubowski, PhD, tells Billboard. "She had three songs in the top 10 of our earworm list, and she was the top-named song, with 'Bad Romance' named by 33 participants in our study. 'Alejandro' and 'Poker Face' were positions 8 and 9 on our list. So it seems certain artists stick out more than others."
Part of the reason "Bad Romance" topped the list of most-reported earworms could be that it features two equally unforgettable segments -- the proper chorus and the "rah rah" hook -- both of which were cited "fairly equally" by participants as segments that got stuck in their head.
As for what frequently cited earworms have in common compositionally, Jakubowski says successful ones tend to be fairly straightforward, but with a few curveballs thrown in to keep listeners interested.
"The overall contour of the entire phrase or melody tended to be quite generic [in theses songs], like you would find in a nursery rhyme or 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.' Despite the overall pattern, some of the interval structures within that melody were rare or unusual. You might find a bigger leap [between notes] or a bigger fall or rise in pitch than you would expect in a typical pop song," Jakubowski explains.
"The overall structure has to be simple enough that it can be recalled spontaneously in the mind, so it can't be so complex that you can't remember it. But within that, you have these interesting intervals that add unpredictability to melody," she notes. "Simple, but not too simple, so that the brain doesn't lose interest."
While the Earworm Project included songs throughout music history, Jakubowski confirmed their list shared a number of similarities with Billboard's 100 Greatest Choruses of the 21st Century, including songs from Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Katy Perry and LMFAO.
She also confirmed that despite not being a pop music fan prior to the study -- "I'm a classical violinist," she says -- her brain is now wired to Mother Monster's frequency.
"When I was working on this research, I would see 'Bad Romance' listed at the top, and I would instantly get it in my head. I had it in my head for weeks working on this paper. I didn't even know it that well before the study. Even when I haven't thought about the study for weeks, it still randomly pops into my head when I'm walking down the street. I'm like, 'where did that come from?' There's something in the data: 'Bad Romance,' it really gets stuck in your head."