Frozen 2, the sequel to Disney’s blockbuster 2013 animated musical, is in theaters — and I’m scared. No, I don’t have kids dragging me to see it. What I’m anxious about are the new songs. Namely, that I won’t be able to get them out of my head with anything other than an electric drill.
Fortunately, early reports are in. It sounds like there are a few catchy tunes, but nothing resembling the cultural touchstone that was, and still is, “Let It Go.”
🎵Let it go. Let it go-o. Can’t hold me back anymore…
Okay, is your day ruined too? Great! Like me, you might be curious about why certain tunes take up space in our heads without paying rent. “Let It Go” certainly isn’t the only one. Other famous earworms are “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “Call Me Maybe” and the iconic, infuriating jingle for Kars 4 Kids.
These songs aren’t catchy just because they’re overplayed. There’s actual science behind why certain songs become earworms and others are enjoyed at a modest consumption. There’s a scientific name for earworms, too: involuntary musical imagery.
“There’s a sort of sweet spot,” says Kelly Jakubowski, an assistant professor at Durham University. “They can’t be too simple.” Jakubowski co-authored a 2016 study dissecting which aspects of popular songs from 2010 to early 2013 contributed to involuntary musical imagery. They surveyed 3,000 people about which songs get stuck in their heads the most. One key finding? There can be 100 songs on the radio and 99 don’t stick with you, but all it takes is one “Bad Romance” and that rah-rah bitch is in your head for days. The 2010 Lady Gaga hit was the leading earworm of ’em all. Gaga’s other hits “Alejandro” and “Poker Face” were also in the top 10. Maybe if she’d put a few earworms on ARTPOP, she’d still remember it.
Other tracks that made Jakubowski’s list included the aptly titled “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” by Kylie Minogue, “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen and “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye — remember him?
What do they all have in common? Three factors: an uptempo beat, generic melody and unique intervals. “They were fairly generic tunes, but then maybe once in a while they might have a sort of bigger leap than you would expect,” Jakubowski says.
There’s additional research suggesting some of us are more susceptible to earworms than others. “We could relate the sickness of the auditory cortex (the central part of the brain which is involved in auditory perception) to the frequency of the music in your head,” Nicolas Farrugia, an associate professor at France’s IMT Atlantique engineering university, tells MEL. His 2015 study in Consciousness and Cognition deduced that the less gray matter we have in our cortex, the more earworms we’re susceptible to. They’re still researching why this is.
So what do you do when the nieces and nephews are singing “Let It Go” again throughout Thanksgiving? Put on Moana — just kidding. According to Jakubowski’s follow-up study in 2014, there are three potential solutions: passivity (letting the song fade on its own), closure (remembering the next lines in the song, getting yourself out of that chorus loop), or displacement (replacing the offending tune with another sound).
The best trick I’ve found? A podcast. “Verbal material and musical material occupy the same sort of resources in the brain,” Jakubowski says. “Really focus on another speech aspect and the music should go away.”