Must Have Been an Earworm. (Ew, a what?)

It’s the morning after the Grammy’s, and I for one, can’t get Billie Eilish out of my head. Perhaps it was the fact that she nearly swept the awards alst night, keeping her song playing for what seemed like every 5 minutes. Or, maybe it’s something more scientific  – and maybe even something in common with a Mentos jingle.

Some of the younger readers may or may not be familiar with advertising jingles. In all fairness, they’ve fallen out of popularity from their once pervasive presence. Many of us will likely remember such unforgettable classics as the Kit Kat theme or the ode to Oscar Mayer Weiners. I apologize if these are now echoing through your head.

Jingles came about in a time of significantly less marketing channel availability. There was no social media, email, or even *gasp* television. The first jingle rolled out in the 1920’s when radio was the media of choice for America and beyond. In 1926, General Mills became the first brand to use a short combination of words and melody to advertise their struggling Wheaties brand, thus inventing what would become the jingle as we know it. Also, this was literally sang by a group called the Wheaties Quartet (they did not sweep any Grammy’s awards, by the way). Following the jingle’s release, the cereal that was up for discontinuation experienced record sales and would persevere into the future, being the cereal of choice for countless breakfasts and late night snacks.

As radio continued to dominate, so too did the jingle. As you may know, television wasn’t popular or affordable for most until the 1950’s, and while TV had the notable benefit of visually illustrating a product’s benefits, radio did not (obviously). So brands battled the airwaves to have the most memorable jingles to not only differentiate themselves, but also echo through the heads of Americans as they browsed the aisles of grocers.

So, what about jingles (or Billie Eilish) makes them so memorable that we can’t seem to expunge them from our brains? Well, there’s actually some science to it – and they’re called earworms. I know, the word evokes terrible images of some horrific insect planting musical repetition in our heads. While this sounds like a great plot to a Sci Fi film, it’s actually much less frightening and far more nerdy and scientific.

Earworms are technically just catchy songs or melodies that get stuck in our brains. Technically speaking, they’re usually 15 to 30 second sections of a song – making jingles perfectly suited to fit. Beyond jingles, they can be a bridge of a song, or a repeating verse, or maybe a terrible song about a…baby shark (Sorry that I just planted that in your head). The simpler the piece, the harder it is to get it out of your head.

Even with advances in all things science, experts still don’t know the exact reasoning for why the phenomenon occurs, but do recognize that it most likely has to do with our working memory. This is the section of the brain that process and stores verbal information – so sort of the same process and section of the brain that we use in classroom experiences.

While radio is still present today, it’s golden era has mostly passed as newer media channels have emerged. So, what becomes of the jingle? They still exist to some degree in television commercials and socially shared internet content, though they a far cry from their wholesome tunes of a bygone era.

Very few large companies are still using the jingle – but if you listen hard enough you can find them. One of the more notable modern jingles is the short, but catchy “I’m Loving It” of the fast food giant McDonald’s. (Fun music nerd fact: This jingle was originally sung by another multi-award-winning Grammy artist, Justin Timberlake, and the jingle was then turned into a song on his album, produced by The Neptunes).

Aside from shifting media channel preferences, another factor has led to the decline of jingles: original licensed music. As original music ages, it becomes easier for companies to license an artist’s original song. While many artists have notably fought to keep their songs from becoming the next jingle selling a burger or vacuum cleaner, many have lost and witnessed their songs go on to grace countless commercials.

Today, we see far more original music being used in advertisements than we do jingles. In fact, many artists and labels will readily sign off on the opportunity. With declining royalties and streaming services cutting into traditional album sales, artists see music placement as a new channel of income. And, it works. 

Unless you’ve been under a rock this past year, Lizzo has dropped all sorts of earworms on us. Her music is literally everywhere – from commercials, to movies, to television shows. She has inserted her hits in every channel that presented itself and it has paid off. While she didn’t walk away from the Grammy’s last night with the biggest award (which, I think she deserved), she did take home Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best Urban Contemporary album. 

So, the next time you can’t seem to get that tune out of your head, just remember it’s just an innocent earworm.

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