For the last 10 days or so, I’ve been haunted by three little notes, which I fear may be burned into my brain forever: OH AY AHHHH. It’s the little snippet of song that plays before and after commercials during World Cup coverage on TV, and my mind cannot, will not, stop playing it. (Of course, now that I’m writing this thing and actually want to hear it, it seems to be impossible to find online.) OH AY AHHHH, I hear as I close my eyes to go to sleep. OH AY AHHHH, I heard as I was running a 10K on Sunday. OH AY AHHHH, my boyfriend and I sing to each other across our apartment, because we’ve lost hope of ever getting this thing out of our heads.
As it turns out, research on earworms — those songs you can’t shake from your mind — suggests that this three-syllable little number may be perfectly structured to get stuck in your head. The makeup of an earworm looks something like this:
It’s short. An earworm tends to be 10 seconds or less, usually just a fragment of a song, said Elizabeth Margulis, author of the book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, on a recent episode of Science Friday. Margulis also noted that the people who compose music for ads and TV are well aware of this and exploit it to their benefit.
It’s simple. Another key factor of a sticky song is its simplicity. Research suggests that a song containing longer notes but smaller differences in pitch (in other words, the song doesn’t swing from very high to very low notes) are more likely to play in your head on repeat, which is a description that fits my own current World Cup earworm perfectly. That’s because an earworm is, essentially, your brain singing along to music, and songs with longer notes but without big changes in pitch are easier to “sing.”
It’s played when you’re not really paying attention. In my particular case, the little tune is usually played when the World Cup coverage is either going to or coming back from a commercial break, which means the game is either over or it’s half-time. In other words, it’s played during times when I'm maybe not paying a ton of attention, and that, research shows, is when an earworm can burrow into your brain and grab hold.
How do you kill an earworm? One suggested method is to concentrate deeply on something that requires your full attention. So there is hope! Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), earworms tend to take hold when we hear them played over and over and over, so the song will probably be right back in my head the next time I turn on a game. In conclusion: OH AY AHHHH!