Earworm Science and Something Stupid

As nagging as the musical earworm itself can be the riddle of its catchiness.

That may not always be the case, but it’s how I feel about the song that’s now on autoreplay in my head, after watching Better Call Saul (series 4, ep. 7). Its long, cleverly cut split-screen opening sequence (Saul and Kim living their parallel lives, growing apart) is accompanied by an old pop song, a blast from the late ‘60s. I must have been about eight when it was one of those radio hits you couldn’t avoid.

Earworm science is becoming a respectable branch of music psychology. It has an appropriate academic term for the worm phenomenon, Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI). Researchers are trying to identify the features that make some tunes more wormy, more obstinate than others. Earworms, according to one recent article, typically have melodies that are easily singable, a melodic contour that stays close to the average, with a few local deviations that make it distinctive. They also have a tempo that makes them easy to move along with.

These findings are not surprising. They are also very limited. Melodic contour and tempo are features that easily lend themselves to computational methods (automatic indexing, statistic comparison). But there is more that determines whether a tune will get stuck in your mind.

Hit Equations

A more ample set of features is covered by some of the models produced in ‘Hit Song Science‘. HSS is a branch of Music Information Retrieval, which is oriented towards cognitive science and AI rather than music psychology. Researchers in that field are developing techniques of rating musical hit potential, calculated on the basis of comparison with previous commercial success. Features indexed may include ‘energy’, ‘danceability’, loudness, non-harmonicity or noisiness, and harmonic simplicity. These enter into a ‘hit equation‘ that should be an indicator of a song’s commercial success.

Such equations are eagerly sought after by the ‘music industry’. It opens a perspective on a nightmarish world in which the musical landscape is shaped by calculated sales potential, instead of love for music and aesthetic judgment. It’s the world we live in.

These approaches have – as yet – little to say however about the riddle I started with: not what makes a song popular or easily remembered, but what makes some popular songs highly distinctive, despite being mostly platitudinous. There must be a particular balance between predictability and oddity, a coincidence of cliché and invention.

Somethin’ Stupid

Now back to my present and persistent worm: Somethin’ Stupid, a duet written by the otherwise little known C. Carson Parks (1936-2005), author of a couple of dozens of folksy, good-natured but mostly insipid songs.

Parks recorded Somethin’ Stupid in 1966 himself with his wife Gaile Foote as the duo Carson and Gaile, but it has become a hit in 1967 covered by Frank and Nancy Sinatra. Some who felt discomfort with father and daughter singing a love song called it ‘The Incest Song’. There is nothing in the lyrics, in fact, which motivates its setting as a duet.

The melody conforms nicely to the earworm scientists’ model, climbing gently just over an octave. The harmonic pattern or chord succession is conventional, and might be compared that of any number of other songs. There are two in particular that come to my mind, both, not coincidentally maybe, duets.

You can hardly miss the similarity of the chorus of Somethin’ Stupid with that of Tea for Two (by Victor Youmans, 1924). It is in fact made explicit in a wilfully contrarious improvisation on the song by the ‘New Orleans Piano Wizard’ James Booker, on his live album of that title (1987).

The second duet is the barcarolle from Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann (1881), an easy listening classic which contains roughly the same harmonic pattern, and similar melodic features.

Similarities between one song and a host of others may contribute to its popularity by making it easier to grasp. They also create a kind of mental resonance in the listener (different, of course, for every individual).

There are other features that are more peculiar to Somethin’ Stupid, and together they may explain, up to a point, its peculiar charm and expression. But it’s not the kind of explanation that is likely ever to come from an equation.

One is the inversion of the voices: the lower (male) carrying the melody, the higher (female) providing a monotonous accompaniment. It works best when both singers keep a low volume, sotto voice, and the female voice is kept somewhat in the background by the recording engineer.

Another factor is the way the lyrics fit the music, vice versa. Notable is the irregular distribution of the rhymes, that doesn’t coincide with the musical phrase endings.

I know I stand in line
until you think you have the time
to spend an evening with me.
And if we go some place to dance
I know that there’s a chance
you won’t be leaving with me.

Or, divided according to the musical phrases: I know I stand in line until / you think you have the time to spend / an evening with me. The shorter third line with its somewhat abrupt, syncopated ending is the song’s most catchy feature, it’s ‘hook’. It very effectively culminates in the key phrase:

And then I go and spoil it all
by saying something stupid like
“I love you”.

It may be easy for the listener to extend the self-conscious corniness of that “same old line” to the song as a whole: intentionally or not, its sentimentality sounds tongue-in-cheek.

In case you are now too infected with this earworm, the scientists have a less obvious recommendation: chewing gum. Personally, I rather chew the worm.