Ever had a tune stuck in your head? A song that comes to mind and then goes on repeat, outside of your control? Welcome to the world of the earworm! What can we learn about music provision from this experience?

Thanks to a collaboration with BBC Radio 6 Music myself and a team of researchers were able to collect thousands of reports about earworms and analyse them to discover what songs become earworms, what triggers them in our daily lives, and – most importantly for me – what helps us expunge them from our inner ear.

In the last 10 years, research and our understanding of these issues has grown significantly; the world of our musical imaginations is beginning to give up its secrets. A recent review of earworm research by Lassi Liikkanen and Kelly Jakubowski noted that:

  • Musical training may extend the duration of earworms episodes almost threefold, but to date there are no other relationships with individual differences like age, gender identity, or personality. Over 90% of people get earworms now and again. 

Ultimately what emerges as an earworm comes from our musical memory bank. That wonderful store of comforting musical treats that we can wrap ourselves in for relief and security has the potential and the inclination at times to go rogue and throw out a memory trace that gets embedded in our conscious experience. It might be a nice snippet that we like; it is possible to enjoy an earworm! But the majority of the time the tune becomes an irritation.  

I often get asked by companies to reveal the secret to a ‘sticky tune’. They want to know how they might embed music in consumers’ minds so that their product or service is at the top of their agenda. It might sound like a great idea at first glance but the key to making the most of our powerful musical memories in the commercial sphere is to embrace it not abuse it. 

No-one likes a grating tune; forced mental repetition of any kind isn’t fun, so why would the experience of a bothersome earworm create positive associations with that brand or product? When creating a memorable musical environment it is best to avoid earworm features. Jingles are not the way to create an enduring, valuable music-brand relationship.

So how do we embrace musical memory?

The constructions within our musical memory provide the blueprint for the prediction of a set of tonal, textural and rhythmical features that the consumer is likely to respond to well. By understanding the musical memories that a consumer base is likely to hold in their minds, a brand can create familiar music that  replicates these prized features. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and people will linger longer in any environment that goes the extra mile to make the sonic surroundings comfortable.

Playlists can also be based on well-liked music by simply replicating tracks from the average of the collective consumer memory, based on an understanding of consumer profile. But in this case it is important they are the original, veridical tracks. The power of accuracy within our musical memories means that people can spot a poor substitute a mile away. 

Our music memories contain both keys and trapdoors. Knowing the potential of music to shift our psychological state even in the extremes of illness and despair, it is natural to want to bring that positivity to our consumers. In so doing we must be sensitive to the fact that musical memory can please but it can also annoy, especially if you fall down the rabbit hole of creating sticky music. Effective music strategy plays to the strengths of musical memory – not its weaknesses -  in the certain knowledge that customer satisfaction and loyalty will follow.