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5 Steps (Finally!) to Get a Song out of Your Head

'Earworms' are notoriously difficult to banish. This may be the cure.

Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

“I hate this song! Why won’t it stop playing in my head?”

Earworms can be maddening—those songs that get stuck, playing over and over in your head. They can be commercial jingles (some of the worst for me) or snippets of pop songs. Sometimes it might be a song we actually like, but more often, they are snippets of songs that we hate.

This odd mental phenomenon demonstrates how little conscious control we have over our own brain and what happens in our head. After all, this is our brain, singing, inside our head, and we cannot make it stop?!

Research done in 2012 explored whether it was possible to create earworms intentionally, and if so, how they could be manipulated. (It’s a bit surprising that IRB committees let this research through. It sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to research subjects, if you ask me.) In the study, 299 subjects listened to a variety of songs, engaged in different mental tasks, and then reported back after 24 hours if any tunes had become earworms.

This research, conducted at Western Washington University, refuted the idea that earworms only come from irritating repetitive jingles (like the one from those "Nationwide is on your side” commercials). In reality, even “good” music, like songs by the Beatles, could create them. The researchers found partial support for the theory that earworms occur as a result of the Zeigarnik Effect, in which our minds get stuck on incomplete mental processes. This theory suggests that our brains can get "hung up," when we hear an incomplete song that we do not know well. Because our mind can’t “put the song away” and finish it, it gets stuck like a needle on a record, or as in "Groundhog Day," playing the same unfinished snippet on nonstop repeat. In the 2012 research, both complete and incomplete songs created earworms—and people who were more musically talented were more prone to develop earworms.

Finally, when a person engaged in a more absorbing mental task, after or during hearing the song, they were less likely to develop an earworm. So earworms might be like mind viruses that jump into our unused mental RAM and then run in the background. But if you’re using all your cognitive bandwidth, those earworms cannot get in.

Knowing this, I conducted my own intervention experiment. With a couple of mind-wrecking lines from the song “My Best Friend’s Girl” by The Cars playing over and over in my head, I first ... contemplated a self-lobotomy. But then I tried a nap—no luck. Finally, in desperation, but like a good clinician, I consulted the literature and developed a strategy based on science.

I found the video for the song on YouTube, and listened to it all the way through. Then, I listened to some of other my favorite songs afterward—songs that I know well, and know all the way through. I found a few different engaging tasks to immerse myself in, reading and writing on a few things I became impassioned about.

At last, that earworm was gone for good.

So if you find yourself battling a pesky earworm, here is an “evidence-informed” experimental treatment technique to help:

  1. Identify the song playing in your head.
  2. Search the internet and find a complete version of the song.
  3. Play it and listen to it. Spend that three minutes focused on it. Don’t do something else while it plays and limit yourself to half your attention; you might doom yourself to making it your permanent lifetime mental soundtrack.
  4. After the song is finished, immediately engage in a cognitively-engrossing activity. The researchers used sudoku on their participants, but you could also try crossword puzzles, word games, or some other activity that absorbs your attention and forces your brain to sweat a little bit. Avoid doing something that lets your mind wander!

    (If you are driving, assuming you stopped the car to search the internet and self-administer the whole song, find something to do mentally while you drive. Doing mileage calculations in your head is useful—figure out how long it will take you to reach your destination, going at different speeds. This will fill up some of that cognitive capacity that could otherwise wander back to the song.)
  5. Finally, try my strategy of then replacing that earworm with other, favorite, well-known songs (although this might be an individualistic strategy).
Source: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez/Wikimedia Commons

Let me know how it works out!

Follow David on Twitter at @DrDavidLey.