Catchy tunes can actually elicit a pain response from the brain.

By Korin Miller
October 09, 2020
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If you have kids or spend plenty of time around children, you know that listening to “Baby Shark” on repeat can be agonizing. But now, a court has ruled that it’s actually a form of torture.

Two former employees at the Oklahoma County jail and their supervisor were charged with misdemeanor counts of cruelty to a prisoner and conspiracy this week after forcing inmates to listen to “Baby Shark” on loop “at loud volumes for extended periods of time,” per The Oklahoman. Investigators found that the employees forced at least four inmates to stand, secured to a wall and with their hands cuffed behind them, for hours and listen to the song.

Plenty of people on Twitter said they can relate to the song’s torturous qualities.

“As a preschool teacher I can definitely confirm that song is torture,” one wrote. “Friends still mention to me when my son played baby shark 10x in a row at a holiday party. It was pretty bad. This is torture,” another said. “So baby shark, while being unofficially used as a torture device for years now, has now officially been used as a torture device,” someone else tweeted.

Of course, the whole thing about “Baby Shark” is that it’s an earworm, aka a catchy song that keeps repeating in your head, even after it’s done playing. Here’s what you need to know about earworms in general, plus what, exactly, makes “Baby Shark” so annoying.

Why are earworms so catchy?

Believe it or not, earworms have been studied pretty extensively. (And for what it’s worth, they’re known as “involuntary musical imagery” to academics.)

One study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts found that earworms usually have the same characteristics in common: They have an upbeat tempo, they have pitch patterns that are similar to other popular songs, and they have big leaps in notes, going up and down. 

The study also broke down some of the most popular earworms, according to the 3,000 people the researchers surveyed.

  1. “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga
  2. “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” by Kylie Minogue
  3. “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey
  4. “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye
  5. “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5
  6. “California Gurls” by Katy Perry
  7. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
  8. “Alejandro” by Lady Gaga
  9. “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga

Surprisingly, “Baby Shark,” which came out in 2016, didn’t make the cut.

Another study, published in the British Journal of Psychology, found that earworms aren’t usually considered “problematic” by people who are dealing with them, but that people who consider music to be important to them tend to struggle with earworms for longer periods of time and have more difficulty controlling them than people who don’t care as much about music.

“People report frequently singing along with the tune in their head so, in those cases, it is fairly obvious why the tune persists even if the reason why it popped into mind in the first place might be a little more obscure,” study co-author Philip Beaman, PhD, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Reading, tells Health.

And yet another study published in the journal Psychology of Music analyzed 333 reports and found memory triggers—seeing or hearing something that reminds you of an earworm—can start the tune on loop in your brain.

So what makes  “Baby Shark” so agonizing, it's like torture?

There are actually a lot of reasons for this, clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Health. “The music can be hard on the ears,” he says. “Certain pitches hit the auditory receptors in ways that are physiologically painful. These are high-pitched tones and screechy elongated sounds, like nails across a blackboard.” Mayer says these can “elicit a painful reaction in the brain.”

The lyrics also come into play. “When you combine nonsensical words, insulting words, and demeaning words with bad music, you have the perfect storm for a horrible song,” Mayer says.

Overfamiliarity can make a song annoying, too, Beaman adds. “Baby Shark” is “simple enough to be catchy, and has had massive airplay,” he says. If you tend to have a strong musical memory for things you find slightly annoying at first, the additional features of “Baby Shark” can make it especially difficult to take on repeat. As a result, he says, people can have “good grounds for being annoyed” by the song.

Finally, there can be a group mentality at play. “There are songs we are predisposed to like or dislike...because it is considered OK or not by a peer group,” Beaman says. So hearing other adults say that they find “Baby Shark” annoying can also make you more likely to think the same.

FWIW: Beaman’s research has found that trying to block out an earworm isn’t all that effective at getting it out of your head. What can help, though, is accepting that it’s stuck in your head, and then trying to think of something else—just hopefully, not another earworm.

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