Have you ever had a song stuck in your head and, no matter how hard you tried, you could not dislodge it? The song played on and on, whether you were loading the dishwasher, weaving in and out of traffic, or attempting to clear your mind at the start of yoga class. Variously called "earworms," "sticky songs" or "involuntary musical imagery," one study found that nearly 92% of people report having such an experience once a week or more frequently (Liikkanen 2008).
What do we know about the conditions that trigger earworms? In a study recently published in Psychology of Music (Williamson et al., 2011), researchers drew on two different data sources to try to answer this question: A collection of anonymous reports made to BBC Radio 6's breakfast program, and a separate on-line survey.
Not surprisingly, the researchers found that recent and/or repeated exposure to a song was often associated with an earworm. Indeed, the majority of reports were linked with recent or repeated exposure. ("It's driving me mad; my 3 yr old has got the DVD on repeat," wrote one suffering parent of "Duck Tales" by Donald Duck and his nephews.)
Many different kinds of memory triggers generated earworms. For example, returning to the same place where you first heard a certain song can bring on a vivid recollection of that song. Some triggers had only a tenuous connection to the earworm they brought on. One listener wrote that whenever he sees British Prime Minister David Cameron, the song "This Charming Man" by The Smiths "just appears in my head, for some particular reason." Others reported that seeing or hearing a series of words linked to the title or lyrics of a song could trigger an earworm of the same song. For one listener, seeing a license plate with the letter "EYC" set off in her mind repetitions of Michael Jackson's PYT ("Pretty Young Thing") - even though "EYC" and "PYT" actually have little in common. Sounds were also found to be possible memory triggers. A cellphone ringtone that sounds even vaguely like a song can trigger an earworm of the song.
Does the mood one is in make a difference? A wide range of mental states were found to be associated with the onset of earworms. People reported experiencing sad music when they were in a sad mood, and also reported that stressful situations could bring them on. One person reported to Radio 6 that she is "plagued" by Bananarama's "Nathan Jones" in moments of extreme stress, ever since she first "caught" it during her secondary school chemistry exam. Interestingly, both low attention states such as dreaming and mind-wandering, and highly focused musical practice, seemed to be capable of triggering earworms.
While this project answered many questions, it also left me eager to know more. It seems that earworms can be in any musical genre, from Pearl Jam to Prokofiev. Does the music that most often triggers earworms share any common sonic features, despite obvious differences? What about the kinds of people who experience them most frequently? Do they have similar personality traits? And do people who experience worms often have any strategies for putting them to rest? Parents exposed involuntarily and ad nauseam to their children's favorite music would be thankful for some tips!
Liikkanen, L. A. (2008). Music in everymind: Commonality of involuntary musical imagery. In K. Miyazaki, Y. Hiragi, M. Adachi, Y. Nakajima, & M. Tsuzaki (Eds.), Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC10) (pp. 408-412).
Williamson, Victoria J.; Jilka, Sagar R.; Joshua, Fry; Finkel, Sebastian; Müllensiefen, Daniel; Stewart, Lauren. (2011). How do ''earworms'' start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery. Psychology of Music. Published online 27 September 2011