Baby Shark? Deleting Songs Stuck in Your Head
How songs get stuck and ideas to remove them.
Posted September 30, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Do you have the baby shark song swimming in your head? Sometimes, an awful piece of music gets stuck, returning repetitively to your thoughts. How can you erase that song, remove it, delete it from your auditory playback loop?
Almost everyone has had a song stuck in their head. Maybe it was a song you liked. But sometimes, a horrible song gets stuck.
To know how to erase a song stuck in your head, it’s helpful to know how one gets started. Most songs in your head are started by something in the world around you that reminds you of the song. Generally, that’s hearing the song. Fortunately, many of the songs you hear are ones you like. I generally only listen to songs I like. This means that most songs that get stuck in your head are songs that you like and know well.
But sometimes, a truly noxious song is stuck in your head. More than likely something in the world around you caused that song to start playing in your head. Maybe you heard it in a store. Maybe someone was whistling or singing it. For the baby shark song, you should blame your children (or grandchildren). You don’t always have control over all the music you hear or all the other cues that may remind you of a song. Awful songs aren’t more likely to get stuck and repetitively play in your head (Moeck, Hyman, & Takarangi, 2018). But when those awful songs are mentally replaying, you really notice them and they may feel intrusive.
For the song to start playing in your head, you also have to know it fairly well. For this reason, simple songs may often be replaying in your head. Songs with easy, repetitive melodies. You learn them quickly. And the baby shark song is a really easy song to learn.
Here’s the bad news. The baby shark song is almost perfect for getting stuck in your head. It is simple and easy to learn. Thus it easily repeats in people's heads. Many people, especially those who interact with young children, hear the song frequently. There’s a sense in which parents are doomed to have the baby shark circling in their heads. But there may be hope.
Here are some ideas for chasing the baby shark from your mind. First, we should note that everyone has limited cognitive capacity. If that cognitive capacity is busy doing something else, then there will be less space for the baby shark to attack. But it isn’t simply keeping your mind busy. You’ll want to engage particular aspects of thinking; in particular, do something verbally. Songs involve the aspect of working memory that depends on holding sound patterns active. Limiting the space for songs is more likely if the activity in which you’re engaged is also a verbal task (Hyman et al., 2013). Have a conversation, read a book, watch a TV show. Each of these activities uses the cognitive resources needed for a song to repeat in your head. Each of these activities can chase the sharks away.
Here’s a second idea for chasing away a song stuck in your head. Verbal thoughts, such as a song stuck in your head, also depend on articulatory planning; that is the planning involved in preparing to speak. Try chewing gum. Philip Beaman and his colleagues found that chewing gum disrupts the resources needed for planning speech and thus can decrease the rate of having a song in your head. This seems to work whether unintentionally having a song stuck in your head or if you are intentionally trying to think about a song. Haven’t you ever noticed how hard it is to remember how a song goes while engaged in talking? It's the same basic thing with chewing gum. It disrupts music in your head.
Of course, a third idea is to listen to different music. Or simply hum a different song to yourself. With a new song in the environment, that old song will be removed from your thoughts. But warning: Listening to other music runs a serious risk. You may find a different song taking up residence. Personally, I’ve just accepted that I will frequently have a song stuck in my head. Instead of despairing, I have decided to take control. I choose the songs I’ll have stuck by selecting to listen to music I like. I found this was critical when working with my students on earworm research. We had many different pieces of music playing, some of which I didn’t really like that much. At the end of each day, I simply played something I like. Thus I had control over what was playing in my head.
All of these tricks (doing something verbally, chewing gum, listening to other music) can help remove a song stuck in your head. But I should also acknowledge something important. Consciousness, like nature, abhors a vacuum. In quiet times, thoughts will return to consciousness. A recent song, that you thought had been banished, may also return to awareness. When that happens, don’t despair, repeat the above tricks. Good luck with those baby shark songs.
Beaman, C. P., Powell, K., & Rapley, E. (2105). Want to block earworms from conscious awareness? B(u)y gum! The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68, 1049-1057.
Hyman, I. E., Jr., Burland, N. K., Duskin, H. M., Cook, M. C., Roy, C. M., McGrath, J. C., & Roundhill, R. F. (2013). Going Gaga: Investigating, creating, and manipulating the song stuck in my head. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27, 204-215. DOI: 10.1002/acp.2897
Moeck, E., Hyman, I. E., Jr., & Takarangi, M. K. T. (2018). Understanding involuntary cognitions using instrumental earworms: Emotional valence and familiarity. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 28, 164-177. DOI: 10.1037/pmu0000217