The sci­ence is in on ear­worms, and the No 1 sin­gle threat­en­ing to break ARIA records proves the the­ory, says Lauren Ste­wart

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Lauren Ste­wart is reader in psy­chol­ogy at Gold­smiths, Univer­sity of Lon­don.

FOR a pop song that con­tains all the mu­si­cal and lyri­cal depth of a ra­dio jin­gle, Phar­rell Wil­liams’s Happy is show­ing re­mark­able longevity. More than three months since its re­lease, the hit reg­is­tered its one-mil­lionth sale and be­came the long­est run­ning No 1 in Aus­tralia this decade, tak­ings its place atop the ARIA sin­gles chart for the 10th week. Happy is now tied equal sec­ond for long­est run­ning No 1 for this century.

As a psy­chol­o­gist look­ing at the phe­nom­e­non of “ear­worms” — tunes that get stuck in our heads — the song’s suc­cess tells us a lot about the way in which cer­tain melodies can bur­row into our brains and stay there long af­ter the mu­sic has stopped. Of course, other fac­tors also ex­plain the

Happy phe­nom­e­non. Hav­ing col­lab­o­rated with Daft Punk on one of the big­gest hits of last year, Wil­liams, who was in Aus­tralia ear­lier this month for Fu­ture Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, didn’t just get lucky. He is one of the mu­sic in­dus­try’s most pro­lific, hard­work­ing and charis­matic per­form­ers. He as­tutely blends a range of in­flu­ences from Mo­town to Michael Jack­son and hip-hop for max­i­mum cross-gen­er­a­tional ap­peal and is backed by the sort of mu­sic in­dus­try mus­cle re­served for only the most bank­able stars.

Happy also has ben­e­fited from its ex­po­sure on the sound­track to the an­i­mated film Des

pi­ca­ble Me 2, which earned Wil­liams an Os­car nom­i­na­tion and gave him a plat­form to mar­ket the song all over again by per­form­ing it in front of a global tele­vi­sion au­di­ence of mil­lions at the cer­e­mony ear­lier this month. He even danced to it with Meryl Streep.

There’s no doubt the mes­sage con­veyed has uni­ver­sal ap­peal. In the video for the song, gospel choirs, chil­dren dancing on the pave­ment, a maid fold­ing linen in a ho­tel and a fire­fighter com­ing off his shift all break into song and dance, to de­clare that “hap­pi­ness is the truth”. The use of hand claps is a mu­si­cal and so­cial sig­nal, and the back­drop of the un­lit al­ley and the con­trast of shade and light echoes the mes­sage, “Sun­shine, she’s here, you can take a break”.

Yet, treated purely as a piece of mu­sic, Happy lights up all the ar­eas that mat­ter in the brain. For a start, it is re­plete with rep­e­ti­tion so we can grasp the tune with the min­i­mum lis­ten­ing ef­fort. The rep­e­ti­tion in­her­ent to mu­sic such as this is en­joy­able be­cause lis­ten­ing to mu­sic causes us to un­con­sciously make pre­dic­tions about how a melody will con­tinue. When these ex­pec­ta­tions are con­firmed, the re­sult is a cere­bral high that can be as po­tent as any highly an­tic­i­pated re­ward.

But there are more sub­tle fac­tors at work too. With the help of Shaun Keav­eny, a Bri­tish BBC broad­caster who urges af­flicted lis­ten­ers to send in their early morn­ing ear­worms as a form of ex­or­cism, the Mu­sic, Mind and Brain group at Gold­smiths, Univer­sity of Lon­don, has com­piled a data­base of thou­sands of re­ports of these mu­si­cal phan­toms from the pub­lic. Af­ter study­ing the data, it was found that tunes re­ported as ear­worms shared cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as long note du­ra­tions, and a change in melody that in­volved small steps rather than large leaps.

Happy is a per­fect ex­am­ple of just such a tune. The cho­rus barely moves away from the ini­tial note while the sus­tained gospel-style har­monies move in small steps to cre­ate in­ter­est.

Such melod­i­cally and rhyth­mi­cally sim­ple phrases are not only in­stantly mem­o­rable but also easy to sing along to, even silently and un­con­sciously, in our heads. A study that com­pared brain ac­tiv­ity as sub­jects lis­tened to fa­mil­iar or un­fa­mil­iar tunes that were muted at cer­tain points showed re­mark­ably sim­i­lar neu­ral pat­terns whether they were “lis­ten­ing” to real or imag­ined mu­sic. While mut­ing a well- known tune causes a “fill­ing in” ex­pe­ri­ence, when the tune in ef­fect car­ries on in your head, this is not the case for mu­sic you don’t know. So by com­par­ing brain ac­tiv­ity dur­ing these two types of si­lence, it is pos­si­ble to map how the brain continues to “hear” a tune even when it has stopped. It’s likely that if you were to scan some­one’s brain as they lis­tened to Wil­liams’s song, their men­tal juke­box would still be fir­ing long af­ter the tune ended.

There is a school of thought that ear­worms may serve some pur­pose at a neu­ro­log­i­cal level. One the­ory the Lon­don team is ex­plor­ing is whether they might be use­ful as a kind of sonic screen­saver for the mind, so that when the brain lapses into “idle” mode, an ear­worm can be trig­gered to keep us vig­i­lant and alert to our en­vi­ron­ment. It may be the case that just as we may use real mu­sic as a form of stim­u­lant, tunes in the brain serve a func­tion of chang­ing our mood or en­ergy lev­els. Some people find it hard to ac­cept ear­worms could be use­ful. One woman stud­ied told of how she had been plagued for years by Bana­narama’s Nathan Jones at times of per­sonal stress, since it first struck dur­ing a chem­istry exam. If ear­worms do keep the brain vig­i­lant at some fun­da­men­tal level, it seems they are largely im­mune to es­o­teric no­tions such as mu­si­cal taste and pref­er­ence.

In the longer term, Happy’s catch­i­ness may yet be its down­fall. Most people will have ex­pe­ri­enced the pure an­noy­ance gen­er­ated by a care­fully crafted ad jin­gle aimed squarely at the mu­si­cal brain, and over­ex­posed pop tunes risk the same fate. Lis­ten­ing to or men­tally re­play­ing a song too many times will lead to an over­fa­mil­iar­ity that may no longer be re­ward­ing.

Per­son­ally speak­ing, this en­dur­ing brand of “happy clappy” is an au­di­tory pick-me-up I can live with for a lit­tle while longer.

Phar­rell Wil­liams

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