The Science of Earworms, Or Why You’re Singing Carly Rae Jepsen Right Now

“Hey I just met you. And this is crazy. Here’s my number. So call me maybe?”

If you’ve turned on the radio, walked through a supermarket or surfed the Internet within the last few weeks, it’s fairly likely you’ll be able to hum the melody that supports those lyrics. Even maybe—and there’s no judgement here—you might be able to sing those lyrics loudly on your own.

You might not know the singer’s name, but Carly Rae Jepson’s current hit single, “Call Me Maybe,” ranks among this summer’s contenders for Earworm of the Year. Even The Today Show has caught Carly fever.

What you might not know is that there’s actually an entire science behind why certain music gets “stuck” inside your head. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, in writing about the power of earworms in his book, Musicophilia, theorizes that they could be a reaction to “the overwhelming, and at times, helpless, sensitivity of our brains to music.” A paper published last fall in the Psychology of Music found that almost any sensory perception can trigger that “on” switch in our brains. Repeated exposure, current mental state and even nostalgic memory are among the various reasons that certain music stays with you.

So while “Call Me Maybe” was not among the discussion points at the “Reawakening The Brain Through Music” event at the NYU Skirball Center, the science behind why it and other tunes like it can so easily lodge in your head were. Cognitive neuroscientist Petr Janata and musician Stanley Jordan joined Sacks at the World Science Festival program, which was moderated by “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl.

(Photo courtesy of Akbar Sim)


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