Identifying Properties of Tunes That Get ‘Stuck in Your Head’
Toward a Theory of Cognitive Itch
James J. Kellaris, University of Cincinnati
Presentation to the
Society for Consumer Psychology
February 16, 2001
- Music often used in commercial and educational settings to increase memory for:
à Other verbal material to be learned
(Wakshlag et al. 1982)
- Hence, studies have investigated:
(Wallace 1991, 1994)
à Influence of music’s presence vs. absence
on memory for ads (Yalch 1991)
à Properties of music that facilitate or detract
from acquisition of verbal information
(Kellaris, Cox and Cox 1993)
- Although music is used to facilitate memory for other (verbal) information, often the (non-verbal) music itself is the most memorable feature of a stimulus event.
- “Stuck tune” phenomenon – involuntary mental rehearsal of a song, tune, or jingle.
WHY DO TUNES GET STUCK IN OUR HEADS?
TOWARD A THEORY OF “COGNITIVE ITCH”
The “stuck tune” phenomenon may be explained by analogy…
- Just as certain bio-chemical agents (histamines) have physical properties that can cause the skin to itch, certain pieces of music may have auditory properties that excite a reaction in the brain.
- An itching sensation on the skin motivates scratching to alleviate the discomfort. This exacerbates sensation, causing the familiar cycle of repeated itching and scratching.
- By analogy, the author proposes that the only way to “scratch” a cognitive itch is to rehearse the responsible tune mentally.
- The process may start involuntarily, as the brain detects an incongruity or something “exceptional” in a musical stimulus.
- The ensuing mental repetition may exacerbate the “itch,” such that the mental rehearsal becomes largely involuntary, and the individual feels trapped in a cycle or feedback loop.
WHAT PROPERTIES OF MUSIC CAUSE COGNITIVE ITCH?
- Music can be characterized in terms of objective (e.g., pitch, speed, timbre) and subjective (e.g., happy, exciting, interesting) stimulus properties (Kellaris & Kent 1993).
- The question of which properties may cause “cognitive itch” can be addressed empirically.
SOME A PRIORI SPECULATION
- Repetition within the musical stimulus. A repeated phrase, motif, or sequence might be suggestive of the very act of repetition itself, such that the brain echoes the pattern automa-tically as the musical information is processed.
- Musical simplicity (e.g., children’s songs). Perhaps the ease with which a tune can be reconstructed facilitates its mental rehearsal.
- Incongruity (Kellaris & Mantel 1994). When a musical phrase is incongruous with listeners’ expectations, or violates a pre-existing schema, it may be more likely to incite a cognitive itch.
- Self-administered questionnaire distributed to about 1,000 respondents at 4 universities (2 public, 2 private) in western, mid-western, eastern, and southern United States
- N = 587 complete responses available at time of conference
- Ages range from 18 to 61 (mean age = 22.3 years)
- Males = 58.9%, females = 41.4%
- Majority were business majors; music majors = 5.6% (n = 33)
PERVASIVENESS OF PHENOMENON
1.Have you ever had a song, tune, or jingle “stuck in your head?” One that seemed to repeat itself over and over in your mind? One that just wouldn’t go away, no matter how hard you tried to block it out?
YES – 99.0%
NO – 0.5%
NOT SURE – 0.5%
WHAT GETS STUCK?
- If you answered “yes,” what was the item stuck in your head the last time this happened?
A SONG (w/ lyrics) – 73.7%
A TUNE or MELODY (instrumental, no words) – 7.7%
A JINGLE or AD (radio or TV commercial) – 18.6%
Some specific pieces mentioned…
SONGS: Follow the Yellow Brick Road; It’s a Small World After All; I’m a Little Teacup; Barney Song; Flintstones theme; Sesame Street theme; “Tomorrow” and “NYC” from Annie; Mambo #5; Macarena; Oh, Happy Day; Gary Indiana; We Will Rock You; American Woman; Gilligan’s Isle theme; YMCA; “Kyle’s Mom” from South Park movie; Winnie the Pooh; Sleigh Ride; the Gambler; Don’t Worry, Be Happy; Getting’ Jiggy Wid’It;
B. Spears; Backstreet Boys; I Am Woman; Havin’ My Baby; Beauty and the Beast; Titanic theme; I Do; I Like Big Butts; Joy to the World (Jeremiah Was a Bull Frog?); the Lion Sleeps Tonight; “Handy Man” by James Taylor; The Name Game; Whomp – There It Is; Tangerine; Yellow Submarine; Time in A Bottle; Man, I Feel Like a Woman
“Anything by Michael Jackson”
“Everything by Disney”
TUNES: Mission Impossible theme; Wild, Wild West; Atari 260 (video game); Eine Kleine Nacht Muzik; theme from Andy Griffith Show; Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony; Odd Couple theme; Bach, Beethoven, Dvorjak, Tchaikovski…
JINGLES: Kit-Kat Bar jingle; Snappy Pizza; Fall Into the Gap; Ford Country; Chili’s (Baby Back Ribs); Coke jingles; Pepsi jingles; McDonald’s jingles; Dr Pepper; “I am Stuck on Band-Aids,” Folgers; Big Red; “meow-meow-meow-meow” cat food commercial.
DURATION OF EPISODES
- About how long was this item stuck in your head?
One Hour – 19.6% 2-3 days – 11.2%
A few hours – 35.2% 4-5 days – 2.9%
An entire day – 23.5% One week – 2.9%
Over one week – 4.6%
“ATARI 260 – Since 1986”
FREQUENCY OF OCCURANCE
4. How often (if ever) does this happen to you?
- Females experience the phenomenon more frequently (Chi-sq = 7.2, df=3, p = .06)
- Music majors more often than business majors
HOW CONSUMERS DESCRIBE
THE STUCK TUNE PHENOMENON
- What adjectives would you use to describe this phenomenon? What words best describe the feeling of getting a song/tune/jingle stuck in your head? (Please list three.)
#1 = Annoying
#2 = Frustrating
#3 = Repetitive
#5 = Irritating
Some positive adjectives: Amusing, calming, catchy, enjoyable, entertaining, good, intriguing, lively, peppy, rhythmic, soothing, thrilling, up-beat, uplifting
STRATEGIES TO COMBAT
- What (if anything) do you do to try to make the song/tune/jingle “go away?” What did you do the last time it happened?
- “get busy doing something else”
- “try to think about something else”
- “read out loud”
- “sing a different song”
- “play a different song on stereo”
- “don’t fight it – that only makes it worse”
- “nothing – just roll with it”
- “laugh about it – tell others”
- “chew cinnamon”
- “try to give the ‘tune kooties’ to someone else, like, tag – you’re it!”
EFFICACY OF STRATEGIES
- Did the strategy you described in #6 above work?
YES – 63.7%
NO – 18.4%
UNSURE – 17.9%
8. Why do you think tunes sometimes get stuck in people’s heads? Please try to come up with a serious explanation, even if you are only guessing.
- Mere exposure, over-exposure (“we are constantly being pounded by jingles”)
- Episodes triggered by associations (“I see or hear something that reminds me of a song”), antecedent states (“usually happens when I am tired or bored”)
- Simplicity or “catchy” attributes in music elicit attention
- Fills brain’s need to stay occupied – “stuck tunes are to the brain what chewing gum is to the jaws”
- Rhythm of music resonates with body’s natural pulses – like a building shaking in response to a resonant frequency. (“certain music taps into our bio-rhythms.”)
- Coping mechanism – provides distraction to combat or avoid stressful thoughts
- Additional analysis – e.g., code strategies and cross tabulate with efficacy
- Musical structural analysis of stuck tunes
- Literature on stuck phrases and stuck thoughts, repetition disorders may provide additional “clues”
- Investigate traits of individuals who are prone to getting tunes stuck
- Refine and test alternative explanations