Victoria Williamson

You Are the Music

3 Ways to Get a Song out of Your Head

... and what we're learning about where 'earworms' come from.

Posted Nov 02, 2015

Danie Nel/Shutterstock
Source: Danie Nel/Shutterstock

About five years ago I made an interesting and crazy decision: After a week-long mental tussle with the song "Oh My Darling, Clementine," I had become fascinated by why music got stuck in my head. I was curious to know whether and how other people experienced this phenomenon, so I put on my researcher hat and started investigating.

Talk about opening the floodgates…

I discovered how little was known about this everyday phenomenon, at least until recently. It has many names but mostly goes by the term "earworm," describing a short snippet of music that comes unbidden to the mind and then repeats at least once immediately on a loop.

Does this happen to you?

According to surveys, well over 90% of people report having an earworm at least once a week. This finding applies to research conducted in the U.S., U.K., and Finland. We need more work to understand whether earworms are common to all humans. (If anyone is interested in the cross-cultural earworm angle then please get in touch!)

I can count on two hands the number of people I have met in the last five years who say they have never experienced an earworm. These people have nothing in common—one is even a professor of music. But while there may be these exceptions, it is clear that earworms affect the majority of us.

The near-ubiquitous experience can teach us about our relationship with music and reveal wider insights into our hidden mental lives, especially as related to the curious world of spontaneous cognitions: Why do these thoughts "pop" into our minds?

I was hooked, and I wanted to know more. I gathered as many earworm stories as I could via Internet surveys, interviews, and questionnaires. This turned out to be much easier than getting volunteers to take part in most psychology experiments. People are quick to share their earworm stories.

This brings me to the crazy part of my decision to tackle earworms: You think your earworms are bad? Try spending months listening to other people’s earworm music. Yep—mental jukebox overload. My experience suggested two things:

  1. There might be something in the music that makes some tunes catchy.
  2. Contagion of earworms, something Mark Twain wrote about in 1876 ("A Literary Nightmare"), is a modern reality.

Let’s deal with these one at a time…

Is there an earworm formula?

Initially, I thought there was, since music that stuck for other people often also stuck in my head. With my colleague Daniel Müllensiefen, an expert in computational musicology, we started looking into the structural composition of tunes that get stuck.

Five years on, we are still looking. If there was an obvious earworm formula, it should have popped out of the computer by now. We have had many leads, but they all fizzled out when we added more data. Patterns ebbed and flowed, ran deep and then ran dry.

Do I still believe in an earworm formula? There may be reasons why one tune is more likely to become an earworm than another, but I don’t think there is a magic musical recipe for a catchy song. (Sorry, advertising creators!)

My current belief is that it is our responses to music, rather than its elements, which drive whether a tune gets stuck. For example, music that is easier to sing by virtue of pitch range and repeating rhythms may be more likely to get stuck. Singing along, either mentally or out loud, reinforces the music in our powerful motor memory system.

Are earworms contagious?

People’s earworm stories confirmed that we often "catch" an earworm, possibly from having listened to music in the recent past. In the Twain story, a character "infected" a person on purpose by singing his earworm out loud. But even the passing mention of a tune may be enough. If you know the melody, you might even find yourself humming "Oh My Darling, Clementine" during the next couple of days...

So, is music stuck in our heads simply because music is everywhere in modern life?

The fact that Twain wrote about earworms for a general audience in 1876, long before music was recorded for mass distribution, suggests not. However, we are all vulnerable to contagion since exposure to music brings strong memories to the surface where they can dwell in our consciousness.

Earworms seem to be a consequence of our powerful musical memory system, which is hugely valuable—most of us would not want to live without the precious musical memories that provide a doorway into our past. In many cases, musical memories survive when other items in our memory begin to fade.

Can we make earworms go away?

Most earworms are not annoying—that is a myth. From diary studies we know that only about a third of stuck song experiences are negative. However, we also know that these unwanted earworms can be stressful or upsetting when they occur at the wrong time or place. But is there a way to fight back when we don’t want a tune in our mind, or do we have to wait until they pass out of our conscious awareness?

Our team asked over 1,000 people what they do when an earworm gets stuck, and if their efforts worked (Williamson et al., 2014). The good news is that a large proportion of people felt they did have successful coping strategies. So the situation is not hopeless. The patterns in those strategies also reveal possible root causes of earworms. Here are 3 ideas:

1. Verbal distractions.

Recite a mantra, prayer, poem, or story. People also find success with crosswords and verbalizing either by writing (texting, emailing) or in conversation. This suggests that the mental faculties that support verbal activity are also involved in maintaining earworms (lyrical or not). Occupying those circuits with a wordy task often knocks out the sticky tune.

2. Challenge your mind.

Executive function tasks are those that absorb our mental faculties. It is similar logic to filling your mind up with something wordy, but the idea here is that if the task is tricky enough it need not be verbal in nature. Executive function tasks could include a math-based puzzle (Sudoku) or a random generation task that requires monitoring, like listing U.S. capitals without repeating yourself.  

3. Hum a tune.

Some musical tunes seem to help knock out earworms, without themselves getting stuck. We don’t know yet whether there are tunes that work for everyone, but you could try some of our most popular earworm "cures": They include the "God Save The Queen," the A-Team theme, and "Happy Birthday."

If we researchers can take the contagion, armed with coping strategies, then we will continue to discover more about why music sticks so firmly in our minds. My hope is that we can use this knowledge to help harness powerful musical memories in order to better support our learning of new languages or skills and improve well-being in everyday life.  

Reference

Williamson VJ, Liikkanen LA, Jakubowski K, Stewart L (2014) Sticky Tunes: How Do People React to Involuntary Musical Imagery? PLoS ONE 9(1): e86170. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0086170