I know about the common concept of a 'musical hook': a "short riff, passage, or phrase, that is used in popular music to make a song appealing and to 'catch the ear of the listener'."

The Wikipedia article mentions how it is studied in marketing research, and provides two links to websites of organizations which study the 'hook' ('Hooked on music' and 'Hooked!'). However, I am not interested in marketing research and the two websites linked to as 'scientific research', at a glance, do not provide any insight into the research they are conducting.

Is this concept studied within the field of psychology or neuroscience? Is there any domain-specific terminology used to refer to what makes music appealing or 'catch the ear of the listener'? I would like to start reading into this literature but currently do not know what to search for.

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    $\begingroup$ The about page from the Hooked! app in fact does provide some other terminology: "The name also refers to the 'cognitive itch' that is caused by 'earworms': fragments of music that you cannot get out of your head, no matter how hard you try." $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ I have heard the earworms term before but not in a scientific discussion or with a paper, but that is not to say it won't be used in scientific literature. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 9:23
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    $\begingroup$ Possibly related: Are there any studies that examine the phenomenon of songs stuck in the head? Although I can't tell for sure since I'm asking this question 'by proxy' and the original OP specifically stated he was not interested in 'songs being stuck in one's head'. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 9:28
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    $\begingroup$ @StevenJeuris Possibly helpful: scholar.google.com/scholar?cites=890087114670300661 there is a published proceedings on the "Hooked" app you describe, and the articles citing it suggest that there is some at least initial forays into more academic research in the area. Most of it seems outside psych, though. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 21, 2018 at 19:29

2 Answers 2


Looking into the term earworms lead me to the following answer.

If you search earworms into Google Scholar, at the top of the list is 3 papers, after which the rest seem to be about corn earworms. The papers are Beaman & Williams (2010) followed by Halpern & Bartlett (2011) which is then followed by Williamson, et al. (2012).

It was the last paper which lead me to the term Involuntary Musical Imagery and the paper was in Psychology of Music which lead me to the field of Music Psychology

or the psychology of music, [which] may be regarded as a branch of both psychology and musicology. It aims to explain and understand musical behavior and experience, including the processes through which music is perceived, created, responded to, and incorporated into everyday life (Tan, et al.2010; Thompson, 2015).

Searching Google Scholar for Involuntary Musical Imagery leads you to much more.


Beaman, C. P., & Williams, T. I. (2010). Earworms (stuck song syndrome): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts. British Journal of Psychology, 101(4), 637-653. DOI: 10.1348/000712609X479636 PDF: http://centaur.reading.ac.uk/5755/1/earworms_write-upBJP.pdf

Halpern, A. R., & Bartlett, J. C. (2011). The persistence of musical memories: A descriptive study of earworms. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 28(4), 425-432. DOI: 10.1525/mp.2011.28.4.425 PDF: http://www.academia.edu/download/45162267/The_Persistence_of_Musical_Memories_A_De20160428-27955-1tiomp.pdf

Tan, S., Pfordresher, P., & Harré, R. (2010). Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance. New York: Psychology Press.

Thompson, W. F. (2015) Music, Thought, and Feeling: Understanding the Psychology of Music, 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williamson, V. J., Jilka, S. R., Fry, J., Finkel, S., Müllensiefen, D., & Stewart, L. (2012). How do “earworms” start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery. Psychology of Music, 40(3), 259-284. DOI: 10.1177/0305735611418553 PDF: http://www.doc.gold.ac.uk/~mas03dm/papers/Williamson_etal_Earworms_POM_2012.pdf


It seems that you are a perfect reader of this book:

On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind

What is it about the music you love that makes you want to hear it again?

Why do we crave a "hook" that returns, again and again, within the same piece?

And how does a song end up getting stuck in your head?

On Repeat offers the first in-depth inquiry into music's repetitive nature, focusing not on a particular style, or body of work, but on repertoire from across time periods and cultures. Author Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis draws on a diverse array of fields including music theory, psycholinguistics, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology, to look head-on at the underlying perceptual mechanisms associated with repetition. Her work sheds light on a range of issues from repetition's use as a compositional tool to its role in characterizing our behavior as listeners, and then moves beyond music to consider related implications for repetition in language, learning, and communication.

  • $\begingroup$ Definitely a highly relevant book which I expect will contain the answer, but this does not answer the question directly. +1 regardless, since this seems exactly like what the original OP is after. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 7:29
  • $\begingroup$ well, if it's exactly the question is after, then why don't you edit your question to reflect that? I don't think it would disqualify the other answer $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, I'm not the original author of the question. There is a whole lengthy meta post around this. :) Was just trying to help the OP out. Also, I don't feel it is good practice to do too much 'back-and-forth' editing of questions/answers. It is only logical answers lead to new questions, but these should be asked in a new post. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 9:02

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