You asked; University of London’s Georgia Floridou answered. 

From Michelle M.: “I wake up many mornings with a song in my head. Why does this happen? Do the songs tell me something about my personality or is it purely random?”

Research on earworms, sometimes known as Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI), started quite recently. Although we have found out a lot of things about their characteristics, the people who usually get them, when they tend to occur, and some features of the music that triggers earworms, we still haven’t figured out the reason why this phenomenon happens. Sorry to disappoint!

From a psychoanalytic point of view, we might think that earworms communicate subliminally or provide us with comfort. But I’m not a big fan of this view. I don’t entirely reject the second possibility (means of comfort). We tend to choose the music that will make us feel better. But then again, how can our brain know which music to choose to make us feel better? And what if the earworm is annoying and unpleasant, which is the case sometimes?

One of my favorite explanations, which has not yet been confirmed by empirical results, is that earworms are related to the consolidation of music in our memory. We don’t mentally rehearse the music on purpose; our brain does it automatically. This  may be the case not just for music, but also for other kinds of information. Things that we’ve recently encountered are stored in our memories and later come back into our head in the form of involuntary memories. This might happen more frequently or be more noticeable for information that is emotionally charged—like music.

Studies related to personality have shown that earworm frequency (how often an individual experiences earworms) is unrelated to personality characteristics. But some earworm characteristics, like their subjective evaluation (how pleasant or unpleasant they are) and length are associated with personality characteristics. Whether someone sings and how much time someone spends listening to music have also been found to be related to earworm frequency.

A study from our lab about how earworms start has shown that their onset is not purely random. The most common trigger appears to be recent and repeated exposure to the music that is experienced as an earworm. We’ve also found that earworms are associated with words, sounds, people, and certain states of mind, like dreaming and daydreaming. In other words, your earworm could be triggered by something that you read (a word that is included in the lyrics), a TV show you watched, a sound you heard, or even something that you dreamt about. Victoria Williamson, a prominent earworms researcher, describes it as a domino effect: Even if you’re not aware of what made the first domino fall, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

From Gila J.: “Is it true that only a small percentage (10?) of the human population experiences a visceral (i.e., shivering) response to music?”

There seems some variability in the percentage of people who experience chills. In studies in the lab, where researchers try to induce chills, the percentages seem to be quite low, while in surveys where people are asked if they experience chills or have experienced them in the last 5 years, it looks like that 90% of the people experience them. Only 10% of the population doesn’t experience chills (thrills, shivers, frisson, or skin orgasms). But of course this doesn’t mean that the ones who do experience them have them all the time.

The features of music that usually evoke chills are shifts in energy (sudden increases in loudness, sudden dynamic or tempo changes, or the entry of an additional instrument) and the violation of expectations (unexpected harmonic changes). But the music that evokes chills in one person does not necessarily have the same effect in another. Neurophysiological studies have shown that chill reactions to music are an indicator of an extremely pleasurable experience and are associated with the brain’s reward system (the same system is stimulated by food and sex).

From James B.: “How much do math, patterns, and symmetry fit into popular music? I remember reading that thousands of popular songs just use some slight variation of the I, IV, V progression (C, F, G in c-major). Why do certain progressions sound so good?”

Math, patterns, and symmetry fit into all kinds of music, not only popular music. The specific progression you mentioned (and its variations) are widely used in all kinds of music—from Britney Spears to Mozart to The Clash. It’s indeed so widely used that the comedy group “Axis of Awesome” has made a video mash up about it. There’s even a Wikipedia page about all the songs that contain this progression.

But why does everyone like this progression and its variations so much? Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any scientific study related to this question. One possible explanation could be that we come to like the progressions we’re exposed to regularly—a self-fulfilling prophecy!

From Natasha D.: “Is there any one thing that all music has in common?”

The simplest answer is that all music has a sound structure. All music organizes sound in some way, whether it is sound from a musical instrument or just a recording of the wind. We might also say that all music has the potential to induce an emotional reaction, pleasant or unpleasant.

Further Reading:

Image credit:  stephanie via flickr