'Let it go' from 'Frozen' has grabbed our brains and still won't let go

by Sarah Bourassa /  / Updated 
Teenage Elsa the Snow Queen in a scene from the animated feature "Frozen."
"Let it go" has all the classic traits of an earworm: simplicity, repetitiveness and incongruity.Uncredited / Today

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It’s what your kids wake up singing every morning. It’s become the topic of countless YouTube parodies including one of a dad singing, “This freaking song is haunting me … Please make it stop.” Not not only did the song win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, but its remix version has snuck its way into clubs across the country.

Yep, it's the can’t-escape-it, stuck-in-your-head song “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen.” So what exactly is it about this earworm-from-hell that’s made it so irresistible?

W. Anthony Sheppard, chair and professor of music at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts says the combination of the emotional intensity and dramatic shape makes the song addictive. The piano intro begins "ominous, descending and dark" with a "searching melody" he explains in a YouTube video. 

Singer Idina Menzel’s voice pulls us through the lyrics from the snow queen Elsa’s sadness at the beginning to a triumphant, dismissive finish, he told TODAY in an e-mail.

“It builds and builds and, apparently, we never get tired of taking this particular emotional and musical journey,” Sheppard says.

There are long-suffering mom parodies. 

And kids have clamped on to the song’s message of being who you really are instead of who everyone wants you to be, as Sheppard’s 9-year-old daughter puts it.

Yet James Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati who focuses on the influences of music, says these same elements have made “Let It Go” a target for parody.

“The song invites parody because it is easy to imitate and ... is delivered with over-the-top dramatic expression,” he told TODAY.

And the more you hear the anthem, the more it will linger in your thoughts and the more viral it will become. You might say, kind of like swine flu

Tunes that people know well or hear frequently are more likely to cause earworms — songs that get stuck in your head — says Philip Beaman, an experimental cognitive psychologist and associate professor at the University of Reading.

In fact, 91 percent of adults in Western countries experience earworms at least weekly, according to researcher Lassi A. Liikkanen, who published two papers about earworms in the journals Psychology of Music and Musicae Scientiae.

“The popular music of the day and environment you live in easily becomes the soundtrack of your mind,” Liikkanen wrote TODAY in an e-mail.

“Let It Go” has the classic traits of an earworm: simplicity, repetitiveness and incongruity, says Kellaris.

“The incongruity … stems from the ambiguity of the hook ‘let it go,’ which could refer to anything from avoiding an argument to releasing flatulence,” he says. 

In reality, the song isn't about intestinal gas. Composer Robert Lopez — who co-wrote it with wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez — told the Los Angeles Times the song was inspired by their two daughters, and that it was meant to "instill in them the idea that fear and shame shouldn't prevent them from being the magical people they really are." 

If six months after the movie's release, the phenomenon still hasn't peaked, does that mean"Let it go" is here to stay? 

Liikkanen points out that strong musical content can capture interest for years, especially regaining momentum when it reaches fresh ground outside of where it originated. And Sheppard thinks “Let It Go” is not going away any time soon.

“I imagine ‘Let It Go’ will remain part of American musical culture as have other Disney songs like ‘When You Wish Upon a Star,’” he says.

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