Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ohrwürmer (Earworms)

I figured I'd at least give a German title to this blog, seeing as I'm getting more and more people commenting in German, which I find AWESOME. Few things get me happier than understanding other languages.

Today, I was highly productive--I did my German before lunch, even, and got in a good hour or so of practicing before the house was raided by my brother's recently graduated high school friends. They just left, which is why I am clearly not done with the computer before 11 (as I try ever so hard to be).

But on to the topic of the night! One thing that people don't know about me is that I always have a song stuck in my head. Music is always, and I mean always, on my mind. This gets particularly annoying when I hear a song that is conducive to getting stuck in one's head--an earworm. Today's earworm is "99 Luftballons" by Nena. I listened to it originally because I thought to myself "This will help you improve your German!" and little did I know I'd be memorizing a lot of the text just because I had it stuck in my head and kept listening to it.

Some artists are very talented at writing earworms: Lady Gaga, Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel, heck, most of my YouTube friends--they're all earworm factories. I did a bit of thinking on the topic and came up with a few of the typical characteristics of a good earworm:

1. Diatonicism: This is just smart people talk for the general notion of it not sounding weird and being generally easy to sing. "Diatonic" literally refers to its being based on one of the six most common modes (ionian, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian), the very most common of which are major (ionian) and minor (aeolian).

2. Repetition: This is one key aspect of earworms. You have to drive your point home with something repetitive in rhythm, pitch, and especially motive. Some good examples of this: "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga repeats the same rhythm and pitch for the "baa-baa-rap-baa-baa" that everybody remembers. Rick Astley's "Never gonna give you up" uses one rhythm and motive, moving it down the scale each time--"Never gonna give you up [down a step] never gonna let you down [down even further] never gonna run around [closing the idea] and hurt you" and then just repeats it again. This is the way to get something stuck in someone's head.

The key is not to make it annoyingly repetitive--you want them to enjoy its persistence. For example, Lenny Kravitz's "Fly Away" is IRRITATING to listen to because there's no variation at all. On the other hand, his "American Woman" (which, admittedly, is not originally his) has just the right balance of repetition and change.

3. Suggested participation: things that people are invited to join just stick with them better as experiences. Therefore, what you want to write as a song is one which makes your audience want to participate in the performance (i.e. sing along or dance). Therefore, it has to be easy to learn--not too complicated rhythmically, not too strenuous in vocal range, with lyrics they can easily pick up--and exciting to the audience, usually through exciting rhythm and loud singing.

A good rule of thumb to meet these three characteristics is to ask yourself when writing a song: "Can I imagine a teenage girl at a stop light unabashedly singing along and doing a stupid car dance?" If the answer is yes, you have a smash hit on your hands.

Sleep: X
Clarinet: X
German: X
Blogging: X


  1. This is basically how I live my life.

    Simplicity is definitely key with the suggested participation point - especially if you're performing live. So many songs I play (mostly covers, but even a few of my own songs which I do) demand audience participation, which is made easier if you stick to these points. Playing a gig, if you can get a song the audience has never heard, stuck in their heads because of their part in the performance, you've nailed it.

    I suppose in the pop world, all this does is produce simple, awful music, like Ms GaGa. It's the fact that the same things can be applied across all genres (except perhaps Minimalism and Serialism, which have no intention of becoming earworms) which blows my mind.

    Basically yes, I agree with this blog. I'd also add that lyrically people should either be able to relate to the song, or have no idea what it means.

  2. Earworms, I like that. Earlier I have had no other way of explaining this phenomenon than "having an evil goblin sitting inside my head, controlling my inner iPod.". Thanks.

    Also, one is never guaranteed success using this method. For instance example, instsample, STEVE has yet to learn the lyrics to Rick Astley's "Never gonna give you up" CORRECTLY.

    Never gonna give you up
    Never gonna let you down
    Never gonna run around

    Never gonna make you cry
    Never gonna say goodbye
    Never gonna tell a lie

    Just sayin'.
    Also, I'm counting this as a you being Rickrolled :D