Let’s get one thing clear: The Walmart Yodeling kid is great. Mason Ramsey aka Little Hank, the eleven-year-old Illinoisan who shot to internet stardom after a video of him covering Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” in a Walmart went viral, is a talented, charming individual with a bright musical future ahead of him. But there’s only so much you can hear a song before it starts to drive you nuts.
Have you found yourself constantly mentally yodeling the lilting melody behind “She’ll do me, she’ll do you, she’s got that kinda lovin’”? Or are you stuck on the bluesy lick supporting “I’ve lost my heart it seems, I’ve grown so used to you somehow”? Part of the reason Williams’ 1949 hit has lasted over the decades is because it’s so goshdarn catchy — but according to musicologists, that catchiness can turn it into a hard-to-remove earworm. A Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts paper on the psychology of musical earworms published in 2016 pointed to two major characteristics that all the great offenders share: a “common melodic shape” and an “unusual interval structure.”
The term “melodic shape,” explained the researchers behind the study on 3,000 European listeners, refers to the rise and fall of a melody in predictable patterns. Nursery rhymes have common, predictable melodic shapes — think of “Ring Around the Rosy,” with its simple, repetitive ups and downs; a more complicated melody, for contrast, would be literally any song by Björk. “Lovesick Blues” is crammed full of short musical phrases with predictable hills and rises — just listen to Little Hank yodel the hell out of “all I do is sit and si-i-i-igh” — making it far more like the former type of song.
Then there’s the criterion of “unusual interval structure,” which, as the researchers write, refers to “unexpected leaps or more repeated notes than you would expect to hear in the average pop song.” Songwriters include these as a way to prevent a song that relies on predictable melodic shapes from getting too boring. Think of the Beatles’ ubiquitous “Blackbird”, which has simple enough melodic hills and dales throughout the verse and chorus, until you hit that last line — “Into the light of the dark black night.” It’s unexpected, and refreshingly so. “Lovesick Blues” uses a lot of repetition, but it too has a bunch of unexpected bluesy notes: Listen to the way Ramsey sings the last words of “that last long day she said goodbye” or I’ve grown so used to you somehow”.
Couple a common melody with unusual intervals and a cute kid in cowboy boots whose yodeling mug is inescapable on the internet, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for one hell of an earworm. Repetition plays a big role in getting a song stuck in your head, too, so it probably doesn’t help that Ramsey has been inescapable for the past week.
Unfortunately for us — and for the sweet kid, who’s just trying to do a thing he loves — our earworm-hating brains might turn us against him, whether he deserves it or not. Even if he wanted to disappear for a while, it’s not likely to happen for some time: This weekend, he’s performing at Coachella with Whethan and Post Malone, which is sure to give him an even more powerful platform for worming his way into our hearts and ears.