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The Secret to Pop Earworms: The Millennial Whoop

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Pop music has been at the heart of mainstream culture for years and pop songs all have something in common: the tendency to get stuck in your head. I’ve often wondered why pop songs get stuck in my head. So I did a little research.

What makes pop songs so catchy? It has to do with repeating simple melodies, rising and falling “wa-oh wa-oh ” note patterns, and familiarity. The secret to creating a song that will play around in a listener’s head for days is surprisingly fairly basic.

During a 2010-2013 study at Goldsmiths, University of London, it was found that songs that are more likely to get stuck in someone’s head tend to have straightforward melodies with a few changes to keep the listener interested.

This study analyzed 3,000 responses to a  question about a song that was last stuck in the test-taker’s head. The top answers about the last song stuck in a person’s had two similarities: a melodic phrase in which the melody first goes up and then back down in pitch, as well as having unusual intervals, repetitions, or “leaps” in a song’s timing. Sound too technical? There are lots of examples.

‘Moves Like Jagger’ by Maroon Five is an example of a song that starts by going up and then back down in pitch, and ‘Bad Romance’ by Lady Gaga is an example of a song that has unusual repetitions.

A second tactic is a form of preventing a listener from getting bored by a generic series of notes. Kelly Jakubowski, leader of the study, explained: “Simple, but not too simple, so that the brain doesn’t lose interest.” The melodies have to be basic enough that they can be brought to mind easily, but interesting enough to stay there.

Another form of creating earworms is by using what musician Patrick Metzger coined “The Millennial Whoop,” which is a melody in which a singer moves from a fifth note, down to a third, and back up to the fifth while singing “wa-oh-wa-oh’. You’ve heard this pattern countless times in numerous songs. The phrase typically is composed of straight 8th notes and may start on a downbeat or upbeat depending on the song.

So many popular songs use “The Millennial Whoop” including ‘California Gurls’ by Katy Perry as well as ‘Can’t Remember to Forget You’ by Shakira (ft. Rihanna). This “wa-oh-wa-oh” hook is an example of creating familiarity in pop songs and is a secret of curating today’s big pop hits. Since this is used so commonly, someone may hear a new song and think, “I’ve heard this before,” even when they haven’t. The power of “The Millennial Whoop” is incredible, and it’s a common hook in today’s big pop hits.

Having a song stuck in your head can be very irritating, so here are some tips from Kelly Jakubowski to help get rid of catchy songs bouncing around in your head: listen to the song all the way through, listen or think about other songs, and simply try not to think about the earworm, just let it fade over time.


Watch this video for more examples in pop culture:


Want to hear “The Millennial Whoop”?  Here are some examples:

California Gurls – Katy Perry (0:52, 1:06 & every chorus)

Live While We’re Young – One Direction (0:54)

Habits (Stay High) – Tove Lo (0:49)

Ride – Twenty One Pilots (0:39)

I Really Don’t Care – Demi Lovato (1:02)

Good Time – Owl City & Carly Rae Jepson (0:04, 1:01)


Sources: What makes an Earworm so catchy?– LiveScience

The Millennial Whoop– The Patterning



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The Secret to Pop Earworms: The Millennial Whoop