The Fallible Mind

Emotion, perception, and other tricks of the brain

Tune Stuck in Your Head? You May Have an Earworm!

The science behind haunting melodies.

This blog is different from those that I normally post. In this one I ask readers to share a specific experience that might seem unusual, even strange perhaps. Given my long history with synesthesia, however, it shouldn't be a surprise that I am open to hearing about strange and unusual experiences. I suspect many phenomena that mainstream science labels "unusual" or "paranormal" are in fact common ones that people are wary of sharing because they fall outside the realm of typical experience.

One such realm concerns the involuntary and spontaneous intrusion of musical tunes in one's head. The phenomenon is called "earworms." Although these are not unnecessarily unpleasant or worrying, they typically are hard to control, meaning that one can neither stop nor start them.

I have had such earworms ever since I can remember. I experience music in my head from the moment I wake up until the minute I fall asleep. Where the melodies arise from I cannot say. They bear no relationship to music I have recently heard, and they typically consist of advertising jingles, popular songs, and excerpts of classical music and opera. Decades ago when Sony first introduced the Walkman I marveled as everyone else did at the fidelity of its sound. I did not buy one, however, because I could voluntarily "play" any song I chose in my head. To me doing so didn't sound any different from the actual recording. At the time I still engaged in cross-country running. To pace myself I usually played Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2 in my head. The last moment has a strong beat sounded out by the tympani.  

I want to hear from readers who have similar experiences. Specifically, I want to know: 

Have you had this all your life?

If so, how old were you when you first became aware of the music?

Can you control the melody that plays? Start it or stop it? Suppress it? If so, what do you do to affect it?       

What, if anything do you think triggers the melodies in your head?

Does anyone else in your family have earworms?

Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., is a neurologist best known for bringing synesthesia back to mainstream science. His latest book is Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.

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