The Power of the Earworm – Can’t Get You Out of My Head

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Back in 2001, diminutive Antipodean chantuer Kyle Minogue scored a worldwide pop smash with the song ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’.

Written by ephemeral 90’s pop sensation Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis, formerly the guitarist in Mud, the song exhibits all the hallmarks of what those of a musical bent would call ‘an earworm’.

That is a song, riff, rhythm, melody or lyric that you literally cannot get out of your head. Ah, Dennis and Davis, I see what you did there. Clever. Those Ivor Novello gongs (and all the other song-writing awards) were well deserved.

Of course, once a hyper-contagious tune wriggles inside your noggin, there’s literally no way to expel it until the next earworm comes along.

Back in 2009, Finnish academic Lassi A. Liikkanen studied the potency of earworms. From a survey response of 12,000 answers, he deduced that 90% of the Finnish population were partial to an earworm once a week, every week. Highway to Helsinki did not feature. Shame.

Once a hyper-contagious tune wriggles inside your noggin, there’s literally no way to expel it until the next earworm comes along.

Remarkably, there have been several other highbrow studies into understanding what weaponises a musical motif into eardrum Ebola.

One recent example is the work of Dr Kelly Jakubowski and her team at Durham University. Their study identified the elements needed to create aural stickiness (I just made that term up). They call it involuntary musical imagery.

Earworms, it seems, need to be of a fast tempo, with a non-complex but catchy melody, while featuring unusual musical intervals creating leaps or repetition.

In other words, there are your average songs. And then there are your classic never-to-be-forgotten moments of musical majesty such as ‘Bad Romance’, We Will Rock You’, ‘My Sharona’ and ‘Groove Is In The Heart’ that adhere to the secret formula.

Feel free to listen to a podcast on this fascinating research.

Of course, advertising has always shown a keen interest in harnessing the power of audio brain explosions. Marry a killer tune to a story well told and you have emotional dynamite.

Advertising has always shown a keen interest in harnessing the power of audio brain explosions.

Sometimes this has meant agencies wowing their clients with an already well-established song or crafting an original jingle to tingle the ears and loosen the pockets of the target audience. Let’s consider a few humdingers of yore.

For hands that do dishes can feel soft as your face with mild green Fairy Liquid.

Opal Fruits, made to make your mouth water.

For mash, get Smash.

Wooah, Bodyform.

Interestingly, the intro of the Bodyform tunette sounds uncannily similar to the famous drum intersection in Phil Collins’ 1981 monster hit ‘In The Air Tonight’. Coincidence? I think not.

And of course, Phil’s morose musical musings on marital separation catapulted its way back into the public’s consciousness in 2007 when it featured in Cadbury’s ‘Gorilla’ commercial.

Admit it, at some point in your life, you’ve air-drummed along to this seminal musical moment. That’s because it goes up to eleven in the sonic stickiness department.

Recently, myself and the team at Indicia have dabbled with an earworm. We were tasked with creating an online campaign for Dacia to celebrate their fifth birthday in the UK car market.

Two things screamed out from the brief.

First, we had to follow up on their hugely successful Dacia Duster ad featuring a crafty comic re-cut of a famous 1980 Queen hit. The subtle lyric change allied to the song’s iconic bassline worked deliciously well.

Second, we were tasked with educating (and entertaining) our audience with the correct UK pronunciation of the brand name.

So how to do this? Which song could we playfully subvert? Whatever we chose needed to offer the flexibility to withstand cunning wordplay yet exhibit extreme earworm effectiveness.

After much head-scratching, musical inspiration arrived like a fiery chariot from the sky. And lo, ‘Dacia Way (I Like It)’ burst into life. Long may it continue to set up home in people’s brainboxes.

Sometimes at night I lie in bed and wonder if Harry Wayne Casey of KC And The Sunshine Band has found our homage to his disco classic on YouTube. I doubt it. He’s probably too busy counting his dollars and cents. You’ve got to love an earworm that doubles as a formidable pension.

One last thing. If you get a moment, tweet me and ask for the incredible and highly bonkers story behind McDonald’s most successful piece of marketing ever: the five notes – ba da ba ba ba – that feature in their I’m Lovin It’ jingle. It makes the History Of The Borgias read like Five Go Mad In Merthyr Tydfil.

It is earworm excess on every level. Like Led Zeppelin throwing TVs out of hotel windows but done with a forced smile, a side serving of recrimination and a Big Mac in both hands.

Yet, when all’s said and done, whenever you hear it, you just can’t get it out of your head.

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