Whoever invented the jingle was either a marketing prodigy or an evil genius. What better way to get a brand stuck in the consumer’s head than with a catchy earworm? Even a random telephone number can get lodged between your ears when it’s set to the right melody.

So what’s the magic formula? What is it that makes certain songs pop into our heads and repeat like a broken record? Brands would kill for a guaranteed method of writing songs that consistently stick in the consumer’s ear. But the underlying traits of “sticky” songs are still a bit of a mystery, even to experienced songwriters. And very little scientific research has addressed this strange phenomenon of earworms – until now.

Vicky Williamson of Goldsmiths College is leading a research team to find out everything they can about earworms. They’re working on a massive survey, which will hopefully provide some valuable insights for composers, bands, record labels, and advertisers who want everyone humming their music. soundlounge had an interesting meeting with Vicky, and we learned a little more about their project. Their study looks into earworms from three main angles:

1. The Listener – Are musicians more likely to be “infected” by earworms? Do personality types matter? What about age? Gender? If the Goldsmiths team finds that a certain demographic is either more susceptible to earworms or immune to them, perhaps advertisers will need to start factoring it into their sound branding strategy.

2. The Context – What triggers an earworm episode? Does the listener’s mood matter? Do certain activities or environments spark earworms more than others? Vicky and her team are surveying people to see what they’re doing and how they’re feeling when they experience earworms. Advertisers will also be interested to find out if certain situations (ex: sitting in front of a TV screen) are effective for inducing earworms.

3. The Song – Which ingredients of a song make it catchy? The melody? The rhythm? The chord progression? The orchestration? The production? While there’s probably no single magic recipe for a catchy earworm, the Goldsmiths team has been working with software that can analyze songs and predict their catchiness. Although it’s still a work in progress, their early results are promising. As CNN reported,

“Their findings so far suggest that stickiness results from a particular balance of certain pitch intervals and particular rhythmic structures. The formula can currently predict whether a tune is likely to be an earworm with approximately 75 percent success, said Goldsmiths Music, Mind and Brain Co-Director Daniel Müllensiefen.” (http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/10/20/earworms.music/)

soundlounge will be keeping a close eye on the earworm research and will keep you updated with any new findings. In the meantime, you can help out with the Goldsmiths project simply by visiting the Earwormery and completing the online questionnaire.