Repetition Sells? Why Catchy Songs Get Stuck in Our Heads

Oxford Academic
Dec 6, 2019 · 5 min read
Image by Frank Liborius Hellweg from Pixabay

In this extract from Musical Illusions and Phantom Words, Diana Deutsch explores the curious phenomenon of stuck tunes, and how repetition came to be a staple element of popular music.

A while ago, when I was shopping at the supermarket, I suddenly heard, in my mind’s ear, a popular jingle advertising a hot dog:

Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener

That is what I’d truly like to be

As soon as the jingle came to an end it looped around and started all over again — and it went on looping in this fashion, plaguing me constantly for the next few days. I had developed a bad case of stuck tune, or earworm — a peculiar malady that strikes most people from time to time. A tune or other musical fragment bores deep into our heads, then proceeds to replay itself over and over, looping sometimes for hours, days, or even weeks.

We are experiencing an epidemic of stuck tunes, and its cause isn’t hard to find — we are deluged with music through most of our waking lives. Background music is heard everywhere — in restaurants, department stores and supermarkets, elevators, airports, and even hospitals. In addition, many people listen to music fairly continuously over their radios and televisions, and on stereo systems, computers, and smartphones. This constant exposure to music could sensitize our musical processing systems so strongly that they tend to fire off spontaneously.

We are experiencing an epidemic of stuck tunes, and its cause isn’t hard to find — we are deluged with music through most of our waking lives.

While many people like background music, its ubiquity has produced a backlash among those who find it aggravating, and this has led to the formation of protest groups. A protest against the ubiquity of piped music occurred with the 1995 establishment of No Music Day. This was the brainchild of former rock star Bill Drummond, co-founder of the highly successful band The KLF, which abruptly stopped performing at the height of its success. Drummond picked November 21 to observe this day, since November 22 is the feast of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Drummond publically announced that on this day, “No records will be played on the radio,” “Rock bands will not rock,” “Jingles will not jangle,” among other prohibitions. In consequence, thousands of people in the United Kingdom pledged themselves not to play or listen to music on this day.

So how did this state of affairs arise? Consider what the world was like before the end of the nineteenth century. There was no radio or TV; no cassette players or iPods. Only live music was played or sung, and music was heard only intermittently, and in certain venues such as churches and concert halls, or at special events such as wedding celebrations. But all this changed with the development of recording technology, which enabled sounds to be captured and preserved on physical media, so that they could be heard anywhere at any time.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, composers, lyricists, arrangers, publishers, and promoters worked together with the intention of producing songs that would have large sales. In 1920, Irving Berlin proposed a set of rules for writing a successful popular song. Among these rules were:

The title, which must be simple and easily remembered, must be “planted” effectively in the song. It must be emphasized, accented again and again, throughout the verses and chorus…

Elsewhere Berlin emphasized that a new song should contain familiar elements, writing, “There is no such thing as a new melody,” and arguing that effective songwriters “connect the old phrases in a new way, so that they will sound like a new tune.” As recording technology advanced, frequent repetition of phrases became even more common in popular music. In the 1970s, hip-hop DJs developed the technique of repeating a fragment of music indefinitely by switching between two turntables that contained copies of the same record. Loops then became a basic element of instrumental accompaniment in rap music. Later, the development of digital sound recording enabled loops to be created using sampling techniques, with the result that they have become key elements of most popular music today.

Of course, we can’t attribute the repetitiveness of popular music entirely to technological advances. As the music theorist Elizabeth Margulis explains in her book On Repeat, popular music must have tapped into a human appetite for repetition in music. In fact, ethnomusicologists have been arguing for decades that repetition is a fundamental characteristic of music in all cultures. Following this line of reasoning, the tendency to crave repetition in music could also be inducing us to replay musical segments in our imagination, so as to give rise to stuck tunes.

In the 1970s, hip-hop DJs developed the technique of repeating a fragment of music indefinitely by switching between two turntables that contained copies of the same record. Later, the development of digital sound recording enabled loops to be created using sampling techniques, with the result that they have become key elements of most popular music today.

Repetition sells. Joseph Nunes at the University of Southern California and his colleagues carried out an analysis using Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. Taking a sample of 2,480 songs on the chart from its inception in 1958 to the end of 2012, the researchers identified all those that reached #1 (“Top Songs”) and all those that never climbed above #90 on the chart (“Bottom Songs”). The findings concerning repetition were stunning: As the number of repetitions of the chorus of a song increased, the probability that the song would be a Top Song as opposed to a Bottom Song also increased. Further, as the number of repetitions of individual words in a song increased, the probability of the song becoming a Top Song as opposed to a Bottom Song increased.

Once we have listened to part of a familiar musical phrase, we can become driven to play it out in our heads. As Margulis wrote:

One reason for this stickiness is our inability to conjure up one musical moment and leave it; if our brain flits over any part of the music, we are captured by it, and must play it forth to a point of rest. So we constantly have a sense of being gripped, even unwillingly, by the tune. (p. 11)

So while we understand some of the characteristics of music and brain function that are associated with stuck tunes, there is much that remains mysterious about this bizarre phenomenon.


Diana Deutsch is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego. A leading researcher on the psychology of music, she is noted for her discovery of musical illusions, and her work on perfect pitch. Deutsch is editor of the book The Psychology of Music, and creator of the compact discs Musical Illusions and Paradoxes, and Phantom Words and Other Curiosities. Among many other honors, she was awarded the Gold Medal Award by the Audio Engineering Society.

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