EARWORMS – When songs get stuck

by Bev Foster

Part 5 – Special series on Music and the Brain One of my vivid childhood memories is an experience I had while swimming in the lake at my grandparents’ cottage in Haliburton. While puddling around the dock area, I got a leech, more commonly known as blood sucker, stuck on my leg. Out came the salt shaker, one of the ways to unstick that slimy little creature. Once salted, we peeled it off and threw it far, far away. There are some musical memories that we experience like the leech, fragments of songs that tortuously get stuck in our heads. We can’t get rid of them – these pesky phrases of songs  loop over and over again like a record needle trapped in the groove of an old LP. The Germans call it “ohrwurm” or earworm. Other names for this phenomenon are stuck song syndrome, brainworms, involuntary musical imagery or musical imagery repetition. An earworm is the experience of a tune that comes into the mind and repeats without conscious control.  More specifically, it is a neural circuit that gets stuck in our short term memory.  Nobody really knows for sure why this happens, but there are several theories. One theory is that the brain is trying to consolidate memories, like what happens in REM sleep and that earworms are a side effect.  Another is that earworms are a form of mild musical hallucination. Neurologist Oliver Sacks suggests that earworms may be a consequence of our being surrounded by music in our lives whether we want to be or not.  James Kellaris, (aka “Dr. Earworm”) a professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati has studied earworms for years and posits the theory of “cognitive itch”. According to Kellaris,  “certain pieces of music may have properties that excite an abnormal reaction in the brain”. Your brain detects something unusual about a piece of music and draws attention to it, like an itch, and needs to “scratch it” (actually process it)  repeatedly.  The music most likely to cause an earworm , he says, is repetitive, simple, and (rhythmically) unexpected. In his 2001 study of 559 students (average age 23), songs with lyrics were reported as most frequently stuck (74%), followed by commercial jingles (15%) and instrumental tunes without words (11%). The earworm episodes lasted over a few hours and occurred frequently or very frequently among 61.5% of the sample. In a 2011 recent qualitative study published in the journal Psychology of Music, researchers out of Goldsmiths, University of London, did an online study with more than 600 participants and have identified four main triggers for earworms:

  • music exposure – either recently hearing a tune or repeatedly hearing it
  • memory triggers – seeing a particular person, word, hearing a specific beat or being in a certain situation reminds you of a song
  • emotional frame of mind – feeling stressed, surprised or happy may make it stick in your mind
  • low attention states – a wandering mind i.e. daydreaming

Marketers and jingle writers exploit and count on the effects of musical stickiness. 967-11-11 call Pizza Pizza, Sleep County Canada, why buy a mattress anywhere else? are a couple of jingles that have become stuck in my mind. And then there are certain populations with neurological conditions where earworms may have additional impact. For example, people with autism or Tourette’s syndrome or obsessive-compulsive disorder may become hooked by a sound or a word or a noise and repeat it or echo it aloud or to themselves for days, sometimes weeks at a time. Apparently, earworms are common. Kellaris claims that 98% of people will experience an earworm and musicians, those prone to worry and women are more susceptible than others. How does one become unstuck? Common techniques include:

  • waiting it out
  • becoming distracted by something else
  • replacing the tune with another tune
  • listening to the whole piece of which the earworm is a fragment
  • talking “over the earworm” to others

Or you may want to watch how this fellow deals with his earworms!