Why you can't get that damn ringtone out of your head

Certain kinds of music are more memorable than others. But why? Stanford music professor Jonathan Berger uses a common ringtone to explain why we can't get certain tunes out of our minds.

Berger has a fantastic, music-laced essay on Nautilus about how music can confound our expectations, and worm its way into our minds. The most attention-grabbing music leads us to believe we'll hear one sound, but provides us with another. Or it provides us with a sound we can't quite identify. Here, he talks about how that works in this terrific explanation of the default Nokia ringtone:

About 15 years ago I boarded a bus in the Middle East and was assaulted by a cacophony of ringing cell-phones, each shrieking the original Nokia ringtone:

In those days, ringtones were short, unaccompanied melodies (“monophonic” in music parlance), synthesized using a blandly invariant triangle wave—the sort of sound heard in the earliest computer games. Every attempt I made to divert the Nokia ringtone failed.

Unable to dislodge the tune from my brain, I mentally transcribed it. Despite its simplicity, I could not decide whether it started on an upbeat:


or on a downbeat:


The more the earworm plagued me, the more I obsessed over the ambiguity. No sooner did I convince myself that it was iambic, the trochaic interpretation took preference. I switched back and forth—“exclusively allocating,” as psychologists call it, just as our visual perception responds to Rubin vase/faces and other figure-ground ambiguities.

Why you can't get that damn ringtone out of your headRUBIN’S VASE: This image, developed by psychologist Edgar Rubin, is a famous example of visual ambiguity.

Then it struck me that the ambiguity underlies the tune’s success as a ringtone. It is innocuous enough to avoid undue arousal, yet present enough to demand attention.

In an informal series of experiments tailored both to musically literate and untrained listeners I asked others to determine where the accent was in the ringtone. Ultimately over 1,200 subjects responded. Of those respondents, 48 percent placed the accent on the initial note and 52 percent on the third note. I contacted Nokia and even they argued among themselves about where the accent fell. Once made aware of the alternative interpretation, few insisted that theirs was unequivocally correct.

When that ringtone rang, our internal metronomes subconsciously struggled to resolve the ambiguity. The only way to stop struggling was to answer the damn phone.

This is just one little taste of an incredible essay, which you must go read and listen to right now. If you've ever wondered why music sticks in your mind, read Berger's essay on Nautilus.