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Sleep

How Earworms Can Disrupt Sleep

Music can burrow into your brain like a worm and lower your sleep quality.

Key points

  • Listening to music before bed can cause earworms — music that gets stuck in one's head and is hard to shake.
  • Earworms disrupt sleep, hurt sleep quality, and can also be associated with daytime functioning problems.
  • People who listen to music for large parts of the day and those who listen to repetitive, high-tempo music are more at risk for earworms.
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Source: pixabay

One of my favorite ways to decompress after a busy day is to turn on some music. It is almost always classical music. It feels soothing. I feel calm. I can read without being distracted by the words. I believe it makes me sleep better too. Now, I wonder if it is causing earworms.

Earworms sound like something out of an old episode of Star Trek. In numerous science fiction stories, there are creatures that burrow into your ears, make their way to your brain, and take over your personality or worse. (Do not confuse such creatures with the very useful universal translators, the Babblefish, from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). While the earworms I allude to here are not so devious, they apparently wreak havoc on your sleep. And worse, they are spawned when you listen to music before you go to bed.

New Studies Show the Effect Music Has on Sleep

In a study published just this month in Psychological Science, Bayor University scientists Michael Scullin, Chenlu Gao, and Paul Fillmore explored the effects music has on sleep.

Many of us listen to music a lot. We have the radio on in the car, it infused our environments while we sheltered at home during the pandemic, it motivates our bouts of physical activity, and sometimes even allows students a subtle escape from the rigors of a difficult online class (yes, I have seen those earbuds in ears during remote teaching). Have we stopped to think about what listening to a lot of music does to other parts of life?

Enter earworms. Many of us have had them. In fact, try this.

Think of your favorite song. Maybe it is playing right now as you read this. Hum it. If you are listening to music, turn it off and see if the catchy rhythm keeps reverberating in your head. Any time a song gets “stuck” in your head, you are experiencing “involuntary music imagery” aka an earworm. An earworm can apparently disrupt your sleep as a series of three studies aptly demonstrated.

In one study, Scullin and colleagues found that people who frequently listen to music reported persistent nighttime earworms. Earworms were captured by having participants complete a survey designed for the purpose (the Involuntary Music Imagery Scale). The results clearly showed the more one listened to music before bed, the more one experienced earworms, and the worse the quality of their sleep. That’s not all: The earworms were also related to poorer daytime functioning.

You probably noted the first study only looked at the association between music listening and sleep. Participants completed a survey. Listening to music was not manipulated or influenced by the experimenters. This design was correlational in nature and as the oft-repeated mantra goes, “correlation does not equal to causation." So in a second study, Scullin et al., now had participants go to bed in the lab so they could control what they listened to before sleeping.

That may sound uncomfortable but it afforded the researchers an opportunity to control what the participants listened to before they went to bed. Fifty people took part. Half listened to instrumental versions of popular songs (Journey, Taylor Swift, and Carly Rae Jepsen). The other half listened to the same songs with lyrics sung.

What is commendable about this research publication is that the authors followed up with a third study that provided some insight into earworm activity. Listening to music before bed seems to cause an increase in a certain form of brain activity in the frontal lobe of the brain (frontal slow oscillation activity). This kind of brain activity, easily picked up by monitoring equipment slapped or gelled on to the lab participants, is associated with the strengthening or consolidation of memories when we sleep. This result suggests that the music activates earworms that are cultivated by memory-reactivation processes.

Some points of caution. The sample sizes in the studies were not large and more importantly, not diverse. Participants were primarily female and primarily White. Statistical analyses do allow one to calculate the sample size needed to find an effect if it exists and the studies did so, but it will be nice to see if the results replicate.

Are earworms always bad? My classical music before bed seems to suggest not, a view also held by some researchers who argue earworms can distract from negative thoughts. Near 90% of participants in the first study also held the same view (that music before bed was good), but the data suggests earworms were associated with lower quality sleep. No, study 2 did not use classical music so perhaps some music is still alright (as always more research is needed), but this publication urges us to consider our pre-bed activities.

Earworms have been related more to faster tempo, repetitive music, and are more of a problem for those who listen to music frequently. The big flag for you is if you wake up in the night with an earworm, thinking or replaying music in your head. If music before bed spawns earworms, what is Netflix doing?

References

Scullin, M. K., Gao, C., & Fillmore, P. (2021). Bedtime music, involuntary musical imagery, and sleep. Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797621989724

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