CERTAIN types of music — the nagging types — affect us like “mental mosquito bites”. They create a “cognitive itch” that can be scratched only by replaying the song in our brain. The more the brain scratches, the worse the itch.
Most of us suffer from Stuck Tune Syndrome — the officially identified diabolical disorder that leaves us unable to get annoying songs out of our heads.
The syndrome — now believed to frequently affect most people in the Western world — has been identified and researched by Professor James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati.
We do not have to even hear the tunes. Merely a mention of song titles such as My Sharona, Tie A Yellow Ribbon (‘Round The Old Oak Tree), Barbie Girl or Afternoon Delight can trigger an episode.
About 17 per cent of people surveyed recently said annoying tunes had dominated their brains for several days and 5 per cent said the syndrome had lasted longer than a week.
“The process may start involuntarily, as the brain detects an incongruity or something exceptional in the musical stimulus,” said Professor Kellaris.
He said a tune was more likely to stick if it contained repeated phrases or motifs, such as Queen’s We Will Rock You or the theme from Mission Impossible.
“Songs that are childlike in form are more prone to getting stuck than a Bach fugue,” said Professor Kellaris in his recent report to the Society for Consumer Psychology. He cited If You’re Happy and You Know It, which has a predictable melody repeated over and over.
Surveys by scientists have revealed a wide variety of songs tend to end up as earworms with three quarters of people reporting unique songs not experienced by others. The most common tend to be popular songs that are in the charts or are particularly well known.
One team found that Lady Gaga was the most common artist to get stuck in people’s heads, with four of her catchy pop songs being the most likely to become earworms – Alejandro, Bad Romance, Just Dance and Paparazzi.
Katy Perry’s California Girls also rated highly as the 2009 hit Hey, Soul Sister by American rock band Train.
Other surveys have reported Abba songs such as Waterloo, Changes by David Bowie or the Beatles’ Hey Jude.
Mountaineer Joe Simpson famously reported being bothered by a song he hated – Brown Girl in the Ring by Boney M – as he lay injured on a glacier in Peru. Fearing he might die, the tune played endlessly in his head, he later recalled.
A Melbourne classical musician who plays with one of the major orchestras said this week that Sheena Easton’s old hit ditty Morning Train often dominates his thoughts.
“I can be in the (orchestra) pit, getting ready to perform Beethoven or Mahler, and around my head are bouncing the words `My baby takes the morning train, he works from nine to five and then, he takes another home again . . .’
“Sometimes that tune stays with me all day. And I hate it.”
Simplicity is not the only trigger to Stuck Tune Syndrome.
Another possible component, according to research, is incongruity — a beat or lyric that defies listener expectations and incites an itch.
Professor Kellaris cites the song America from Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story and Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, which each have irregular rhythms.
Syndrome sufferers used several strategies to try to rid themselves of stuck tunes.
These ranged from “trying to get busy doing something else” or “reading out loud” to acts of desperation, such as “trying to give the tune to someone else”.
A recent UK study found Geri Halliwell’s Bag It Up and Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red were the two most irritating songs to hear in a traffic jam.
The most pleasant were Robbie Williams Let Me Entertain You and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
Some of the easiest songs to get stuck in your head (as used by the researchers)
Alejandro – Lady Gaga
Bad Romance – Lady Gaga
Call me Baby – Carly Rae Jepsen.
Single Ladies – Beyoncé
She Loves You – The Beatles
I Wanna Hold Your Hand – The Beatles
She Loves You – The Beatles
SOS – Rihanna
You Belong with Me – Taylor Swift