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Eenie-meenie-miney earworms: How jingles bore into our brains

Why do jingles get stuck in your head? Because our brains are primed for it, even before birth. Here’s why:

• Music is one of our most primal preferences. “(Music) is familiar from the get-go,” said Nancy Irwin, a therapist and author from Los Angeles. A fetus’ auditory systems and ears are fully developed by the fifth month of pregnancy, which likely means we met the world with music already in our minds. And a researcher from Belfast found that newborn babies do show a strong preference for basic, repetitive music to which they were exposed in their mother’s womb.

• We link jingles to childhood memories. Our personal music tastes start forming in our first two years, when we’re often exposed to nursery rhymes. The musical simplicity and repetitiveness of jingles transports us back to those eenie-meenie-miney days. Put another way: A jingle touting olive oil or rugs may sound strikingly similar to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” “It’s an unconscious connection,” said Carole Lieberman, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and author. “We feel nostalgic for things in our childhood, and that causes us to feel favorable toward the product.”

• If we can sing it, we trust it. Music projects honesty. So much so that researchers are finding evidence that music is a stronger form of communication than other forms of language. This a “controversial notion,” writes author Daniel J. Levitin in The World in Six Songs, but it makes sense when you think about it: Music conveys feelings more than pure facts, Levitin writes, “and for a number of reasons, it appears it is more difficult to fake sincerity in music than in spoken language.” So when a roofer uses folk music to tell you his company is the best thing for your home, or a pawn shop punches into your mind with a rock-infused message of cashing in that gold, you’re more likely to believe it.

• Music is a teaching tool. How did you learn your ABC’s? We’re accustomed to absorbing knowledge through music, even when the learning is passive. An example from Levitin: What song first teaches kids about the food chain? “I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” How does it work? Through repetition — which is exactly what you find in jingles. “It’s that playful side of us that we like to recapture,” said Ruth Wishengrad, a Califor-nia-based educator who’s developed a series of jingle-length self-esteem songs called “Songs to Change Your Tune.”

– Tim O’Shei