Why that song is stuck in your head

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Man sitting on a chair covering his ears. Earworm concept, also know as brainworm, sticky music, or stuck song syndrome.
Srini Pillay

Srini Pillay, MD

“Earworms” are unwanted catchy tunes that repeat in your head. These relentless tunes play in a loop in up to 98% of people in the western world. For two-thirds of people they are neutral to positive, but the remaining third find it disturbing or annoying when these songs wriggle their way into the brain’s memory centers and set up home, threatening to disrupt their inner peace.

Which songs become earworms?

Certain songs are catchier than others, and so more likely to “auto repeat” in your head. When music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski and her colleagues studied why, they found these songs were faster and simpler in melodic contour (the pitch rose and fell in ways that made them easier to sing). And the music also had some unique intervals between notes that made the song stand out. The catchiest tunes on the UK charts between 2010 and 2013 were “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” (somewhat ironically) by Kylie Minogue, and “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey.

What predisposes to earworms?

In order to get stuck in your head, earworms rely on brain networks that are involved in perception, emotion, memory, and spontaneous thought. They are typically triggered by actually hearing a song, though they may also creep up on you when you are feeling good, or when you are in a dreamy (inattentive) or nostalgic state. And they may also show up when you are stressed about having too much to think about. It’s as if your stressed-out brain latches onto a repetitive idea and sticks with it. Also, if you have a musical background, you may be more susceptible to earworms too.

Certain personality features also may predispose you to being haunted by a catchy tune. If you are obsessive-compulsive, neurotic (anxious, self-conscious, and vulnerable), or if you are someone who is typically open to new experiences, you may be more likely to fall prey to an earworm.

Man sitting on a chair covering his ears. Earworm concept, also know as brainworm, sticky music, or stuck song syndrome.

Why might earworms be good for you?

There is a particular characteristic of music that lends itself to becoming an earworm. In contrast to our daily speech, music typically has repetition built into it. Can you imagine how absurd it would be if people repeated themselves in chorus? Yet, though repetition of speech is associated with childishness, regression, and even insanity, in the case of music it may signify a process that becomes pleasurable when it is understood through repetition. Also, each time music repeats, you hear something subtly different. This learning may constitute one of the positive aspects of earworms. Also, earworms are a form of spontaneous mental activity, and mind-wandering states confer various advantages to the brain, contributing to clear thinking and creativity.

Are earworms ever worrisome?

Not all “stuck songs” are benign. Sometimes they occur with obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychotic syndromes, migraine headaches, unusual forms of epilepsy, or a condition known as palinacousis — when you continue to hear a sound long after it has disappeared. Persistent earworms (lasting more than 24 hours) may be caused by many different illnesses, such as stroke or cancer metastasizing to the brain. A physician can help you determine if your earworm is serious or not.

How do you get rid of earworms?

If you’ve had enough of your earworm and need to stop it in its tracks, you would be well warned not to try to block the song out, but rather to passively accept it. A determined effort to block the song out may result in the very opposite of what you want. Called “ironic process” and studied extensively by psychologist Daniel Wegner, resisting the song may make your brain keep playing it over and over again.

Some people try to distract themselves from the song, and it works. In one study, the most helpful “cure” tunes were “God Save The Queen” by Thomas Arne and “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club. Others seek out the tune in question, because it is commonly believed that earworms occur when you remember only part of a song; hearing the entire song may extinguish it.

Other techniques found to be helpful include those from cognitive behavioral therapy, such as replacing dysfunctional thoughts like “These earworms indicate I am crazy” with “It is normal to have earworms.” A less intuitive cure for earworms is chewing gum. It interferes with hearing the song in your head.

In the most severe cases where the earworms are overwhelming, a physician may prescribe antidepressants (which also help obsessive-compulsive disorders).

Conclusion

In most cases, earworms are neutral to pleasant, not serious, and may even be part of your brain’s creative process. In a few cases, especially when they continue for more than 24 hours, earworms may indicate something more serious. In those cases, seeing your primary care physician may help you metaphorically take the needle off the stuck record so that you can regain your peace of mind.

(This article is reproduced here with permission from Harvard Gazette via Harvard Health Publishing of Harvard Medical School. Srini Pillay, M.D is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry (Part-Time) at Harvard Medical School. He is internationally recognized as an expert in applied brain science and human behavior. Srini is also a musician and poet.)

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