Public Release: 

Songs that cause the brain to 'itch:' professor investigates why certain tunes get stuck in our heads

University of Cincinnati

Warning! Reading the song titles below this line may be hazardous to your sanity:

  • "It's A Small World After All"
  • "We Will Rock You"
  • "The Macarena"
  • "Whomp - There It Is"
  • "The Theme from Gilligan's Island"

What do these disparate works have in common? They were cited by respondents in a study of tunes that get "stuck in your head." Determining why such songs have that ability is the goal of James J. Kellaris, an associate professor of marketing in the University of Cincinnati College of Business Administration.

Having songs "stuck in your head" happens to nearly all of us. Ninety-nine percent of study respondents said they have experienced the phenomenon. Almost 50 percent say that it occurs frequently.

Kellaris, an expert on the influences of music on consumers, reported preliminary results on his work last month at the Society for Consumer Psychology's winter conference. He has a sample of 1,000 respondents to work with in analyzing his theory that certain songs create a sort of "cognitive itch" - the mental equivalent of an itchy back.

"It is like the familiar pattern of itching and scratching," Kellaris says. "The only way to 'scratch' a cognitive itch is to rehearse the responsible tune mentally. The process may start involuntarily, as the brain detects an incongruity or something 'exceptional' in the musical stimulus. The ensuing mental repetition may exacerbate the 'itch,' such that the mental rehearsal becomes largely involuntary, and the individual feels trapped in a cycle or feedback loop."

Kellaris' research seeks to identify characteristics of music that make them memorable. His preliminary work points in three directions he believes play a role:

  • Repetition: One theme song that respondents reported as getting stuck in their heads often was "Mission: Impossible." Kellaris was not surprised. "A repeated phrase, motif or sequence might be suggestive of the very act of repetition itself, such that the brain echoes the pattern automatically as the musical information is processed," he says.
  • Musical simplicity: Simpler songs appear more likely to make your brain itch. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of getting Barney's "I Love You, You Love Me" song stuck can attest to that. Generally, children's songs are more prone to getting stuck than classical music, Kellaris says.
  • Incongruity: When a song does something unexpected, it can also spark a cognitive itch. Examples include the irregular time signatures of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" or the song "America" from West Side Story. Unpredictable melodic patterns or an unexpectedly articulated individual note can have the same impact.

Kellaris is now taking an in-depth look at the survey data he has collected. Of the 1,000 respondents, the kind of music respondents said they got stuck on most recently were songs with lyrics for 73.7 percent, jingles or ads for 18.6 percent and an instrumental tune for 7.7 percent.

But, there's hope. Respondents also reported on the strategies they use to try and rid themselves of stuck tunes. Individual responses ranged from direct approaches like "trying to get busy doing something else" or "reading out loud" to acts of humorous desperation, such as "trying to give the 'tune kooties' to someone else, like (playing) tag, you're it!"

"This research is expected to provide creative guidelines to advertisers that wish to increase the memorability of their ads," says Kellaris. "It should also yield insights concerning the operation of human memory."


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