THE SCIENCE BEHIND WHY PHARRELL IS STILL STUCK IN OUR HEAD
The science is in on earworms, and the No 1 single threatening to break ARIA records proves the theory, says Lauren Stewart
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.