|A spontaneously popping up melody?|
It happened to me a few years ago when I was asked to contribute to a Dutch TV item on the question why some melodies stick in your mind. My first answer was: we do not know. Simply because if we knew, an ‘earworm’-generating computer program would exist that can generate melodies that are guaranteed to stick in people’s mind for days. In this case I’m sure nobody would mind.
But unfortunately for science, now —five years later— we still do not know what is the nature of this phenomenon.
What we do know —mainly from questionnaire-style research— is that most people suffer from the ‘earworm’ phenomenon (also referred to as brainworm, cognitive itch, or musical imagery repetition), females slightly more than males. And that the tunes that spontaneously pop-up in one’s mind are generally not the most striking compositions. Actually, they are commonly reported as being simply irritating.
Why does this happen? And what does it tells us about our cognition? And why does it happen with music, and significantly less with text or images? What is in the musical structure of that particular fragment that makes it spontaneously pop-up from memory?
We simply do not know.
N.B. In Amsterdam we will start investigating earworms as well, in a project named COGITCH* — a collaboration between Utrecht University, University of Amsterdam, Sound & Vision, Radio 5 and Meertens Institute. We will be developing a web-based environment, so-called ITCH environment (Identification, Tagging and Characterization of Hooks) to obtain large amounts of judgments from the lay audience on what makes a fragment of music easy recognizable and/or stick in one’s mind. More on this later this year.
* A cognitive itch refers to an ‘earworm’, a fragment of music that you can’t get out of your head.
Honing, H. (2010). Lure(d) into listening: The potential of cognition-based music information retrieval. Empirical Musicology Review, 5(4), 121-126.