Earworms: Why Do Songs Get Stuck in Our Heads?

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by Oliver Wang

One of the curious changes I've undergone in 15 years of music writing has been an increasing turn towards what you might call "formalism" which is to say, the desire to analyze music through its "formal" parts and trying to decipher what the secret formula to its successes are.

Of course, all musical experiences are inherently subjective and I'm not, at all, arguing for some kind of universal criteria. I just wanted to understand—for myself—"What's working here for me?"

Case in point, try to backwards engineer this:[1]


Now, if you happen to think this is just a terrible, softbatch song from the miliquetoast rock era of the 1970s...you might as well stop now.

For the rest of you...

This song is totally an earworm for me—once I hear it, it sticks in my head for hours, if not days to come, and moreover, I genuinely enjoy the experience of listening to it. But why?

First off, there's just a lot going on in this arrangement on a subtle level. Yes, the vocal hook is definitely sticky, especially since it feels like 90% of the song is the hook (seriously, I've listened to it twice now since I started writing this post and I don't remember what the lyrics are besides, "got a/strange magic."

But beyond the chorus, there's also small things, like the slow build up of the horns during the second verses (but not the first) that gradually lead to that chorus. There's also the flange-effect on what I can only assume are the guitars. And then there's the shift in voice to falsetto(?) on the hook when the lead sings, "got a!" like they're the forgotten Gibbs brother. And then there's that string crescendo (also during the hook) which reminds me a lot of this similar melodic (chord?) progression.[2]

But what I'm doing here is trying to deconstruct the song down to component parts and maybe why this song works is because they all happen to be in concert with one another; I don't know.

Curious what other minds think in terms of trying to break down ELO's strange magic here...


Notes:

[1] Somewhere, someone is thinking, "O-Dub listens to this kind of shit?" Yeah, I do. I ride for Supertramp too. Deal.

[2] Clearly, I'm in need of some basic musicology training.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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