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Song Stuck In Head: “Earworm” Causes & How To Get It Out

Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head that you can’t seem to get out?  (Odds suggest you have).  Research by James Kellaris indicates that 98% of people experience “stuck song syndrome,” scientifically referred to as an “earworm.”  For a subset of lucky individuals, experiencing an earworm is regarded as a positive or enjoyable experience in that it puts them in a cheerful mood for the day – often accompanied by whistling and humming of the song.

If you derive enjoyment from the song that’s stuck in your head, you’ll may be thankful for your earworm.  On the other hand, what if you inadvertently hear a pop song on the radio that you despise, yet it ends up stuck in your head?  In this case, you may attempt to eradicate the song from your consciousness, yet no matter what you seem to do – it may remain stuck in a seemingly infinite, repetitive loop.

You may feel as though the song somehow hijacked your consciousness and allocated all cognitive resources towards a continued looping of the bothersome pop song.  The greater the effort you channel towards forgetting the song, the more distressed you become – leaving you with no other option but to Google something like “song stuck in head, how to get it out.”  Fortunately, if you have an annoying song stuck in your head, neuroscientists have developed a few strategies that may prove efficacious for getting it out.

Earworms: Songs Stuck in Your Head

As was noted, scientists refer to songs stuck in your head as “earworms.”  The term earworm is a calque of the German word “ohrwurm” which translates roughly to “cognitive itch” or “an inability to remove or prevent a song from repeating itself in one’s head.”  The word earworm was first utilized by Desmond Bagley in the 1978 novel Flyaway in which he wrote:

I fell into a blind, mindless rhythm and a chant was created in my mind what the Germans call an ‘earworm’ something that goes round and round in your head and you can’t get rid of it. One bloody foot before the next bloody foot.”

Other terms and phrases used synonymously with earworms include:

  • Brainworm: Referring to any song that penetrates a person’s brain and consciousness only to stay stuck on repeat.
  • Melodymania: A combination of the terms “melody” and “mania” defined as having a song stuck in one’s head on endless repeat until perceived as torturous.
  • Involuntary musical imagery: Any perception of music (e.g. sounds, lyrics, etc.) generated within the brain that is involuntary or subconscious.
  • Musical imagery repetition: Perceiving aspects of music as being stuck on repeat within your head.
  • Repetunitis: This is a portmanteau of the terms repeat, tune, and the suffix –“itis” indicating that a tune is stuck on repeat in such a way, that it’s comparable to a medical disease.
  • Stuck song syndrome: A syndrome refers to a group of symptoms occurring consistently together in a complex medical diagnosis. In this case, it refers to having a song stuck in your head that you cannot seem to remove.

Note: It is important to avoid confusing earworms with the medical condition known as palinacousis.  In the case of palinacousis, individuals have suffered temporal lobe lesions, resulting in the continued perception of hearing sounds after physical noise has subsided.

How a Song Gets Stuck in Your Head (Mechanisms of Earworm)

In recent years, earworms have become an intriguing niche within neurological research.  Researchers have attempted to: explain why earworms occur, identify the neural substrates implicated in earworm occurrence, as well as pinpoint effective tactics to mitigate an already-existing earworm.  Included below is a brief step-by-step explanation discussing how certain songs may get stuck in your head.

  1. Catchy song heard: Not every song will transform into an earworm and cycle on repeat in your brain. Generally, the song needs to be catchy enough that your brain gives it attention – whether the attention is consciously-intended or subconscious doesn’t really matter.  Certain factors that may make a song catchy include: tempo, volume, rhythm, lyrics, emotion, etc.  If the combination of “catchiness” factors forces your brain to give it sufficient attention, it’s likely on the verge of getting stuck in your head.
  2. Auditory memories: Upon listening to the song and giving it attention, the brain records bits of information about its tempo, volume, rhythm, lyrics, emotion, etc. – while listening. These bits of information are stored in auditory memory centers of the brain.  The catchier the song based on a unique combination of factors, the greater attention your brain gives it, and the more prominent the memories it forms of the song.  In addition to forming memories of the song itself, your brain will form association-type memories between hearing the song and: your location, people you’re with, surrounding smells, emotional state, and other sensory information.
  3. Cues trigger memory: Once a song has finished playing, you may immediately have the song stuck in your head, or may find that certain cues cause you to recall the song at a later time. For example, if you listened to the song “Panda” by Desiigner with your girlfriend on the way to dinner at a sushi bar, you may associate the song with this particular date.  If your brain recalls your date, thinks of eating sushi, or reflects upon your girlfriend – there’s a chance that these cues may trigger memories of the song.  It’s also possible that you recall lyrics used in the song such as: Atlanta, phantom, credit cards, scanners – and when primed with one of these cues, you suddenly think of the chorus to “Panda.”
  4. Phonological looping: When the cues trigger auditory memories of the song, an excitatory reaction overtakes the brain. During this excitatory reaction, a 15-30 second portion of the song (e.g. the chorus) gets stuck in what’s known as the phonological loop.  The phonological loop is the subvocalized repetition of an auditory and/or verbal memory.  After a song has entered the phonological loop, your brain will continue to repeat or cycle the auditory sound bite until something interferes with this looping process.  The catchier the song stuck in the phonological loop, the more difficult it will be to get the song out of your head.
  5. Stuck song syndrome: When a song remains in your brain’s phonological loop for an extended duration, you’re left with an earworm. Whether you perceive the earworm as pleasant or unpleasant is likely contingent upon whether you enjoy the song that’s stuck in your head.  If you love the song that’s stuck in your head – you probably won’t care about the stuck song syndrome.  However, if you despise the song that’s worked its way into your consciousness – you may feel irritated.  The greater the number of times your brain cycles through the song in its phonological loop – the longer the song is likely to remain stuck.

Evidence suggests that when an earworm occurs, unprompted auditory imagery may be the culprit.  Unprompted auditory imagery refers to the spontaneous recall of an auditory memory in reaction to a cue or primer.  Specifically, it is thought that auditory and/or verbal cues such as: spoken words, lyrics, or melodies associated with a song that you’ve heard – could cause unprompted auditory imagery associated with a particular song.

Upon recollection of the song in response to auditory/verbal cue(s), it enters our working memory and remains stuck for awhile – leading to an earworm.  Researchers suspect that earworms persist for much longer than we expect because they overtake a memory system referred to as the “phonological loop.”  The phonological loop is subtype of working memory (short-term memory) system involving activation of the auditory cortex.  The auditory cortex is positioned within the temporal lobe, a region of the brain heavily involved in processing short-term, verbal memory.

Most would explain the phonological loop as a brief sound “loop,” or repetition of small sound bites (i.e. 15-30 seconds).  Although a majority of the sound bites that enter our phonological loop are rapidly purged from our conscious awareness, catchy songs possess distinctive qualities whereby they are more likely to stay in the phonological loop for an extended duration.  Though the exact qualities making a song more likely to stay stuck in our heads aren’t fully known, it may be individualized based on the degree of an excitatory response generated within the brain upon recalling the song, as well as simplicity of its lyrics and/or melody.

A more robust excitatory neural response to auditory memories of the song leads the brain to allocate more of its attentional resources to a portion of the song in its phonological loop, and as a result, it repeats the song over and over (and over) within the phonological loop.  Interestingly, the greater the number of cycles by which a song is repeated in the phonological loop, the tougher it becomes to get out of one’s head.  If you were to have a song stuck in your head for just a couple of minutes, it should be much easier to eliminate from your phonological loop than a sound bite that’s been on repeat for 30 minutes.

What is the phonological loop?

To better understand the phonological looping mechanism of the song, it is necessary to examine the phonological loop model of working memory.  The phonological loop model was developed by Alan Baddeley, a British psychologist and professor of psychology at University of New York.  In his 2-part model, Baddeley explains how the brain processes phonological (auditory) and written inputs through: phonological stores and articulatory rehearsal.

Phonological store (inner ear): The first component within the phonological loop model involves short-term storage of phonological input. Without the brain storing auditory information in its working memory, it would be impossible to experience an earworm – the brain would be unable to recall the actual song. When we hear a song (or any other verbal information such as from speaking), the brain stores new phonological information for 1-2 seconds in our phonological store – a component of working memory.

It is said that the phonological store is akin to an “inner ear” that holds information for an extremely short duration.  Spoken words are thought to directly enter the phonological store, whereas written words undergo transduction into an articulatory format before entering phonological storage.  Since phonological inputs are subject to rapid decay (e.g. within 1-2 seconds), we won’t experience an earworm from every auditory stimulus that we perceive.

Articulatory rehearsal (inner voice): Upon capturing phonological input from a song, the brain stores traces of auditory information through the process of articulatory rehearsal. Articulatory rehearsal means that we use our inner voice (or subvocalization) associated with generation of speech to repeat the auditory inputs that entered our phonological store. When a song is stuck in our head, we are repeating it with articulatory rehearsal.

We use articulatory rehearsal a lot in everyday life such as in the acquisition of language and speaking skills.  If you’ve ever been told that you need to remember a new phone number (without writing it down), your brain’s working memory will have heard the digits and stored them in your phonological store.  To avoid forgetting the digits, you repeat them over-and-over using articulatory rehearsal.

When a song gets stuck in your head, it excites the brain into giving it attention as a result of its melody, lyrics, emotion, etc. – and less effort is needed to keep it in the phonological loop than a phone number.  For this reason, the song stays stuck on repeat by overtaking part of your working memory.  Until the articulatory rehearsal is disrupted, the song will likely continue repeating.

Have a Song Stuck In Your Head? How To Get It Out…

While there’s nothing wrong with having a song stuck in your head, some people find it annoying.  Having a song on auto-loop may be distracting and/or interfere with your ability to perform cognitively demanding tasks.  To eradicate an annoying or unwanted song from your head, earworm researchers have identified a few strategies that you could test such as chewing gum or solving complex puzzles.

  1. Chewing Gum

A scientifically-supported method for overcoming earworms involves nothing more than chewing a little gum.  A series of experiments by researchers Beaman, Powell, and Rapley (2015) at the University of Reading (UK) recruited 98 volunteers to study how earworms occur and whether they could be disrupted.  Specifically, 3 experiments were conducted to determine how articulatory motor programming (motor skills associated with speech/sounds) influenced voluntary and involuntary musical thoughts while chewing gum.

Songs used in the experiments included: “Play Hard” by David Guetta and “Payphone” by Maroon 5.  In the first experiment, participants listened to a song in its entirety – from start-to-finish.  After the listening session, researchers asked participants to mention each time they thought about the song while attempting to actively suppress it from memory (i.e. involuntary recall).

Participants were also asked to document each time they thought about the song during a free-thinking period or while making no attempt to suppress it from memory (i.e. voluntary recall).  Results of the first experiment indicated that, when participants chewed gum, the number of involuntary and voluntary song recollections decreased.  In the second experiment, it was discovered that chewing gum modified the experience by which the brain hears music.

The third experiment involved comparing the effect of chewing gum to tapping fingers for the mitigation of earworms.  It was discovered that the subvocal activity of chewing gum was more efficacious than the motor activity of finger tapping.  Based on these results, it appears as though chewing gum modulates brain activity implicated in hearing, remembering, and imagining songs – thereby reducing a person’s odds of experiencing earworms.

Results of this research were consistent with prior findings that chewing gum alters verbal memory recall, interpretation of auditory images, and melodic scanning.  So the next time you’re experiencing a dreaded earworm, don’t work yourself up – just pop in a piece of gum and await peaceful, non-musical, mental clarity.  What’s interesting is that the findings of this study could extend beyond the realm of earworms.

It is hypothesized that chewing gum could help mitigate unwanted hallucinations and/or intrusive thoughts occurring among those with neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and OCD, respectively.  Further research in this area is needed before results of chewing gum for earworms can be extrapolated to serve as a psychiatric intervention.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25896521
  1. Anagrams

The next time you’re dealing with an annoying earworm, you may want to solve some easy anagrams.  Anagrams are deliberately scrambled letters that require reorganization to form a word or phrase – using all letters exactly once.  For example, a relatively simplistic anagram could be “koje” – which you could rearrange to form the word “joke.”

Research conducted at Western Washington University discovered that when people have an earworm, solving anagrams effectively counteracts them.  Interestingly, it appeared as though “easy” anagrams were more effective for eradicating earworms than “difficult” anagrams.  Some speculate that the tougher an anagram is to solve, the more prone we are to distraction during the process.

When presented with an onslaught of easy anagrams, our working memory is taxed enough to dislodge an automatically repeating song from the phonological loop.  Word puzzles such as anagrams may involve a degree of subvocalization in the process of problem solving.  It may be the unique combination of verbal memory and/or subvocalization in solving anagrams that offset earworms.

  1. Sudoku puzzles

If you’re experiencing an earworm, and aren’t a fan of anagrams, you may want to work on solving a Sudoku (a logic-based, number-placement puzzle).  For those that are unfamiliar, the object of a Sudoku is to organize numbers in a 9×9 grid so that every column, row, and 3×3 sub-squares is filled with 1 to 9.  You’ll be presented with a partially filled-in grid [as generated by a computer program] and expected to complete the remainder of the puzzle.

Similar to anagrams, researchers at Western Washington University documented that completing a Sudoku was an effective intervention to keep earworms at bay.  Additionally, like the anagram findings, the easiest Sudoku puzzles were more useful as earworm attenuators than highly difficult ones.  Highly difficult Sudoku puzzles resulted in a greater amount of mind-wandering, making them less effective for the mitigation of earworms.

  1. Reading or Audiobooks

Though completely anecdotal and not researched, another potentially effective strategy for getting rid of an earworm involves reading a book or article.  When you read, your brain transforms written words into articulatory format before they are stored in your working memory.  The process of transforming written words to an articulatory format may interfere with the ongoing repetition of a song in the phonological loop of working memory.

Reading also forces your brain to think about the meaning of words, abstract concepts, and ideas.  Some may claim that reading fiction is more effective for destroying earworms than non-fiction, however, it is unlikely that the efficacy of reading for earworm eradication is contingent upon whether the content is fictitious or an informational article.  What’s more likely is that, similar to anagrams and Sudoku puzzles, the difficulty of the reading material matters.

If you were to read a scientific article about using Cas-9/CRISPR, and have no prior knowledge of the technology, you may find it difficult to comprehend and your mind may wander.  A wandering mind will increase likelihood that the earworm persists.  For this reason, you’ll want to pursue reading material that isn’t overly challenging or complex such as a short-story.

Rather than reading something, you may want to consider listening to an audiobook or your favorite podcast.  There’s a chance that nonmusical auditory input such as in the format of an audiobook may be more effective than reading for stopping an earworm.  All that said, more research is necessary before we’ll know whether reading and/or listening to books could thwart an earworm.

  1. Instrumental music

Another method for getting a stuck song out of your head involves listening to more music.  Assuming you don’t want to simply replace one stuck song for another, you may want to search for a song that has a catchy melody, but no vocals (i.e. an instrumental track).  Most of the songs that get stuck in our heads exhibit a combination of catchy melodies plus vocals.

By forcing your brain to listen to a catchy, melodic instrumental tune (sans vocals) – your earworm may disappear.  A disappearing earworm after listening to an instrumental track may be related to the fact that there’s a mismatch between the melody of the earworm and the instrumental.  Since the instrumental track will demand your brain’s attention while its playing, it becomes extremely difficult for the earworm to remain in the phonological loop.

  1. Replacement song

If you usually don’t mind getting songs stuck in your head, but happen to hate the current song stuck in your head – you may want to implement the replacement strategy.  This is a simple strategy that involves nothing more than listening to a catchy song that you’d prefer to have stuck in your head over the currently-stuck song.  For example, if you have the song “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga stuck in your head, but you hate it, you could opt to listen to an alternative catchy song such as “Beat It” by Michael Jackson.

For the replacement strategy to work, you’ll want to listen to the new song at moderate volume and on repeat.  After a sufficient number of listens, the replacement song should overtake your conscious awareness to such an extent, that it overrides the vocals and/or melody of the stuck song.  Though the newer, replacement song will likely end up stuck in your head – at least it’ll be one you prefer.

Then again, you could choose a random replacement song to which you’re indifferent (i.e. you neither like nor dislike it).  If you’re unsure about where to find a replacement song, you could always search YouTube for catchy songs.  Another option is to visit a website like Unhearit (Un-Hear It) which automatically generates song suggestions to help you overpower a current earworm.

  1. Acceptance

When thoughts are intrusive, sometimes the most effective way to manage them involves accepting them – or letting them “run their course.”  Individuals with obsessive-compulsive thoughts, for example, often do everything they can to get them out of their heads.  To deal with the obsessive or unwanted intrusive thought, a person may engage in compulsions (e.g. hand-washing each time a person thinks there may be pathogenic bacteria crawling around).

Despite engaging in these compulsions in effort to stop the obsessive/intrusive thoughts, they do not seem to improve – in fact, they may end up worsening.  For this reason, it is plausible that while experiencing an unwanted earworm, one of the worse things we can do (if we want it out) is to stress and make a huge effort to get it out.  The more effort a person puts into fighting the earworm, the more distressing, debilitating, and powerful it may become.

To eliminate an earworm, you may be best served by simply acknowledging it, accepting it, and leaving it alone to cycle through your consciousness.  The more we focus on whether we’ve been successful in getting rid of a song, the more our brain may resort to looping it.  Keep in mind that leaving the earworm alone doesn’t involve embracing it – such as singing it or deliberately repeating the song (this will likely strengthen it as well).

Note: It isn’t known as to whether combining any of the aforementioned strategies would be more effective than each as a standalone for managing earworms.  It is possible that chewing gum while solving an anagram or Sudoku may be superior in efficacy than each as a standalone.  Then again, it is also possible that there is no additional benefit to be derived from combining multiple earworm attenuators.  At this time, chewing gum remains the most scientifically-substantiated anti-earworm strategy.

What are the catchiest songs of all time? (Songs most likely to get stuck in your head)

A year-long research project conducted by the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester, UK attempted to determine the catchiest songs of all time.  Researchers directed people (participants) to a website on which they played an online game entitled “Hooked on Music.”  The game involved exposing participants to clips (sound bites) of over 1,000 songs released within the past 70 years, including every Top 40 song from each decade dating back to the 1940s.  The “Hooked on Music” game involved 4 gameplay modes (or components):

  • Recognize that Tune: As participants hummed along to a song, it would transiently “cut out.” While the song cut out, participants were instructed to continue humming so that when the song resumed, their humming would be in sync with the tune.  Participants then analyzed how well they were able to stay in sync with the song upon its resumption.
  • What’s the Hook: Multiple (2) distinct clips of the same song were played, and participants chose the catchier of the two clips.
  • Time Trial: Participants attempted to recognize as many songs as possible within a 3-minute duration.
  • In a Row: Participants attempted to recognize as many songs in a row as they could.

Top 20 Catchiest Songs of All Time (List)

Upwards of 12,000 individuals participated in the “Hooked on Music” game.  Researchers who collected data were particularly interested in understanding: music cognition, the way the brain responds to music, and why certain pieces of music remain in our memory for a longer-term than others.  Results indicated that on average, it took participants around 5 seconds to recognize songs.

The most widely recognized songs were documented in rank-order based on participants’ speed of recognition.  It appeared as though “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls was identified the fastest by participants, taking them just ~2.29 seconds for its identification.  As soon as results of the study were released, media reporters concluded that – since “Wannabe” was quickest to be recognized, it was by default, the single catchiest song of all time.  Below is the full list of songs in rank-order based on speed of participant recognition.

  1. Spice Girls: “Wannabe” (2.29 seconds)
  2. Lou Bega: “Mambo No 5” (2.48 seconds)
  3. Survivor: “Eye of the Tiger” (2.62 seconds)
  4. Lady Gaga: “Just Dance” (2.66 seconds)
  5. ABBA: “SOS” (2.73 seconds)
  6. Roy Orbison: “Pretty Woman” (2.73 seconds)
  7. Michael Jackson: “Beat It” (2.80 seconds)
  8. Whitney Houston: “I Will Always Love You” (2.83 seconds)
  9. The Human League: “Don’t You Want Me” (2.83 seconds)
  10. Aerosmith: “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (2.84 seconds)
  11. Lady Gaga: “Poker Face” (2.88 seconds)
  12. Hanson: “MMMbop” (2.89 seconds)
  13. Elvis Presley: “It’s Now Or Never” (2.91 seconds)
  14. Bachman-Turner Overdrive: “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” (2.94 seconds)
  15. Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean” (2.97 seconds)
  16. Culture Club: “Karma Chameleon” (2.99 seconds)
  17. Britney Spears: “Baby One More Time” (2.99 seconds)
  18. Elvis Presley: “Devil in Disguise” (3.01 seconds)
  19. Boney M: “Rivers of Babylon” (3.03 seconds)
  20. Elton John: “Candle in the Wind” (3.04 seconds)

The formal definition of catchiness refers to how easy it is for a person to remember a song, tune, or phrase.  Though this was a large study with 12,000 participants, it is difficult to assume that the findings of the study accurately reflect a song’s absolute catchiness.  There’s a chance that if certain songs would’ve received more mainstream exposure (e.g. radio play) and/or had memorable titles – their absolute catchiness may exceed that of “Wannabe” by Spice Girls.

For this reason, it is impossible to definitively conclude that the fastest-to-be-recognized songs in this study are automatically the catchiest songs.  Furthermore, it is important to underscore that the study results were reflective upon the specific 12,000 participants.  While 12,000 is certainly a large sample, the demographics of the sample may have significantly influenced results.

Unless age, races, socioeconomic statuses, etc. – were evenly represented among the 12,000 participants, it is difficult to know the extent to which these factors may have impacted results.  For example, incorporating a greater number of young adults (age 20 to 30) in the study may have skewed results in such a way that “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga appeared to exhibit a catchiness exceeding that of “Devil in Disguise” by Elvis Presley.

Oppositely, if there were a greater number of older adults (age 50 to 60) – older songs may be less recognizable than they were portrayed as being in the aforestated rank-order.  Catchiness of a song may be contingent upon a person’s age relative to when the song was released and their corresponding familiarity with the song.  We also should consider that “recency bias” (recognizing songs that were heard more recently than others) may have influenced results.

In accordance with recency bias, we may expect that songs released in the 2000s would be more recognizable (on average) among all participants than songs released in the 1980s because the 2000s were more recent than the 1980s.  Another thing to consider is the cumulative number of times each participant was exposed to each particular song prior to the study in his/her lifetime.  If, among participants, the number of pre-study auditory exposures to “Wannabe” by Spice Girls was significantly greater (on average) than the number of pre-study auditory exposures to “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor – it may be that the former was only more recognizable due to greater average number of pre-study exposures.

Perhaps the best measure of a song’s catchiness is its recognizability after the fewest number of exposures among naïve listeners (i.e. people that have never heard the song before).  Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that songs quickest to be recognized are most likely to provoke an earworm.  To recognize a song, our brain must have previously formed a robust auditory memories of the song’s components.

The faster we are able to recognize a song based on auditory memories of its components, the more robust our memory of that particular song is likely to be.  Robustness of an auditory memory suggests that our brain has an easier time retaining and recalling that particular memory – when compared to other memories.  Since the memory of a recognizable song is easily retained, it may be more susceptible to unprompted recall upon exposure to song-associated cues (e.g. lyrics) – resulting in an earworm.

Variables that may influence likelihood of earworms

If attempting to predict whether a particular song will lead to an earworm, it may be helpful to consider potentially influential variables.  Examples of variables that may influence whether a song induces an earworm include: recency of listens, catchiness/stickability, cumulative number of listens.  In addition, it is necessary to account for individual factors such as: auditory recall, genetics, neural activity, neurochemistry, and preference for a particular genre – each of which may affect encoding of the song within memory.

  1. Recency of song listens

The more recently you’ve listened to a song, the greater the odds of that particular song ending up as an earworm.  If you haven’t listened to a song in 10 years, there’s an extremely low chance that you’ll end up with a random, out-of-the-blue earworm of that particular song.  On the other hand, a song that you listened to 20 times last night has a high chance of becoming an earworm within days thereafter.

Scientists know that our brains fixate upon information (and songs) that we’ve been exposed to recently, hence the reason many people inadvertently commit recency bias, giving more weight to recent events/happenings compared to historical ones.  People don’t deliberately commit recency bias – our brains are just wired in such a way that they give more weight to recent inputs.  For this reason, a song that you listen to recently will be fresher in your memory than one you listened to years ago, making the former more likely to become an earworm.

Furthermore, it is also important to mention that when the brain learns new skills and/or forms new memories, older memories may be displaced or altered.  When you’ve been listening to a song every day for the past week, not only is it fresher in your memory, but it may have weakened connections for the memories of older songs – making them less likely to emerge as an earworm.  Additionally, all associated memories forming while listening to the more recent song (e.g. a date with your girlfriend) making reflective thoughts about your day-to-day living more likely to serve as cues for triggering an earworm.

Even if an older song (released decades ago) popped into your head, odds are that you heard a portion of it playing recently such as on the radio – before you experienced your earworm.  The longer duration since you previously listened to a song, the lower the likelihood that song will become an earworm.  Expect that recent song listens to have increased odds of becoming earworms.

  1. “Catchiness” of song

Another of the most important variable in determining whether a song is likely to end up stuck in your head is its “catchiness” or recognizability.  Ideally, to measure the catchiness of a song, a large sample of participants would listen to songs that they’ve never previously heard.  Catchiness would be measured based on recognizability and/or pronounced memory of a song after the fewest number of listens.

If in a sample of 10,000 naïve-listeners it took ~3 listens to form a pronounced memory of the song “Wannabe” by Spice Girls, but took ~10 listens to form a pronounced memory of “Panda” by Desiigner – we would conclude that “Wannabe” is likely the catchier song and that certain elements make it catchier.  Musicians have long known that modifying components of a song such as the chorus, lyrics, melody, tempo, etc. – can increase its catchiness.

  • Chorus: There may be certain components of a chorus that make it more (or less) catchy than other choruses. The total number of times the chorus is repeated, the length of the chorus, whether the words are easily understood by listeners, and/or whether the words rhyme – may influence its catchiness.  Since choruses are generally repeated several times throughout a song, they tend to be very memorable and most likely to end up as an earworm.
  • Instrumental: The instrumental portion of the song often has a major impact on the memory of the listener. If an instrumental is catchy and synergistically enhances the appeal of the lyrics and/or vocals, it should increase likelihood that the entire song is catchy.  Specifically, the more melodic (pleasant-sounding) the instrumental based on sequence of notes, the greater we can expect the song’s catchiness.
  • Lyrics: The specific words chosen for a song can affect how the majority of listeners are likely to feel. Choosing lyrics that have an emotional impact upon the user may be more memorable than generic lyrics.  Additionally, the auditory aesthetics of word-choice, as well as extent to which most listeners are able to comprehend/understand lyrics – may influence catchiness.
  • Repetitions: The number of times a particular melody and/or set of lyrics (e.g. the chorus) is repeated, the more likely it will be remembered by the listener. It is understood that humans learn and form auditory memories through the act of repetition.  If elements of a song are highly-repetitive, will likely be perceived as a catchier tune.
  • Rhyming: Rhyming of vocals is another way that songs become catchier than songs without as much rhyming. Nursery rhymes are extremely memorable for most because our brain derives pleasure from rhyming sounds.
  • Simplicity: Songs that are extremely catchy tend to incorporate simple vocabulary and instrumentals. Most catchy songs consist of lyrics/words that are understood by listeners of all ages.  In other words, you probably won’t need a dictionary to help explain the meaning of the chorus.  The instrumental will likely be simple as well, consisting of one pleasant melody that repeats itself.
  • Tempo: The tempo or speed of a song may also influence its catchiness. Too slow of a song, and it is unlikely to be memorable.  A rapid song may be too difficult for us to comprehend and or may be unpleasant for listening.  A scientific analysis of hit songs suggests that most catchy songs exhibit a 119.80 BPM.
  • Vocals: Aspects of a singer’s vocals such as: unique sound of voice, vocal range, pitch/tone – likely dictate catchiness of the song, as well as whether it gets stuck in your head. If the pitch/tone of the singer’s voice is unpleasant, it may ruin potentially hit song.  On the other hand, if the pitch/tone is pleasant in accordance with the instrumental, and the singer’s voice is unique – it may be more memorable.

Note:  No single component of a song is solely responsible for its catchiness.  The catchiness of a song is likely determined via interplay of every aforestated component.  In other words, a song’s melody, vocals, tempo, chorus – likely all contribute to its catchiness (in one way or another).

If a song isn’t very catchy, you probably won’t form strong auditory memories of the song.  Failure to form strong auditory memories of the song makes an earworm an unlikely possibility.  How could your brain possibly loop 15-30 seconds of a song if it didn’t remember the song very well?  It would have a difficult time.

Exposure to a catchy song may excite and/or entrance the brain in such a way that strong auditory memories are formed while listening.  These strong auditory memories are necessary for us to recall a portion of the song, and for an earworm to result.  It should also be noted that the catchiness of a song is likely correlated with total number of average listens.

The catchier a song is considered by the mainstream, the more likely you are to hear it on the radio and/or in public places.  The catchier you consider a song, the more likely you will deliberately play it for yourself.  Though catchiness itself may increase likelihood of an earworm, it could be that catchiness leads to increased number of song plays – and that the number of total plays is the more influential of the two variables for earworm induction.

  1. Cumulative number of listens

It should be hypothesized that the cumulative number of times a person listens to a song dictates whether that song is likely to cause an earworm.  Listening to a song (no matter how catchy) just a single time is unlikely to cause an earworm, because with a single listen, the brain’s memory centers aren’t able to store much song-related information.  As a person listens to a song multiple times, more pronounced song-related auditory memories will be formed.

In other words, a person will remember the entire chorus, how the beat changes, as well as the structure of the song; these memories are unlikely after just one listen.  What’s more, when we listen to a song hundreds or thousands of times, preexisting auditory memories of the song are strengthened.  The more robust our auditory memories of the song, the more likely it is to become an earworm.

It should be noted that the cumulative number of times we listen to a song is often a result of its catchiness and/or personal meaning.  Most people do not deliberately listen to a song hundreds or thousands of times that is not catchy, personally meaningful, nor pleasurable.  Therefore, there is likely a significant interplay between the catchiness of a song and the cumulative number of times we choose to listen.

Still, earworms may occur solely a result of quantity of song listens regardless of its catchiness.  We may have been forced to listen to a non-catchy song thousands of times while with family and/or friends, and based on the sheer number of total listens, we get the song stuck in our head.  The greater number of times you are exposed to a song (via listening or singing along), the increased likelihood is may be to cause an earworm.

  1. Individual factors

Multiple individuals could listen to the identical song 10 times within the past 24-hour period, yet only one of the listeners may report an earworm.  In addition to the recency of song listens, catchiness of a particular tune, as well as cumulative number of listens – individual factors may determine whether an earworm occurs.  Though 98% of people experience earworms, rates of earworm occurrences may be subject to individual variation based upon:  auditory memory function, associated memories (with the song), attenuating behaviors, emotional state, listening volume, amount of music exposure, neural activity upon exposure.

  • Auditory memory function: Those exhibiting dysfunction in auditory memory formation would be expected to have a difficult time forming an earworm. If auditory memory centers aren’t functioning properly, it will be difficult for the brain to encode and/or retrieve verbal or auditory information.  Assuming someone isn’t able to remember or recall a song they just heard due to impairment in auditory memory centers, an earworm is unlikely to occur.  Individuals prone to auditory memory impairment include those with: neurodegenerative disorders (e.g. dementia), hearing loss, and schizophrenia – to name a few.
  • Associated memories: Chances are that if you just experienced an emotionally-charged, memorable and/or milestone event such as: graduating from college, losing your virginity, or winning the Super Bowl – your brain will form a vivid memory of the experience. If a particular song happens to be playing when these memories are formed, it should be easy for your brain to remember it.  Each time you recall or reflect upon these milestone memories, they may cue auditory memory centers, causing your brain to think about the song that was playing.  A reminder of the song that was playing may lead you to subvocalize the tune, whereby it temporarily cycles through the phonological loop and remains stuck in your head.
  • Attenuating behaviors: As researchers have shown, certain behaviors interfere with preexisting earworms and may prevent them from occurring. These behaviors include chewing gum, as well as solving “easy”-level anagrams or Sudoku puzzles.  If you are a frequent gum chewer and/or puzzle solver, you may be less prone to experiencing earworms, or may find that earworms you experience don’t last very long.  Oppositely, someone who doesn’t regularly chew gum or solve word/number puzzles may report more frequent earworms.
  • Emotional state: While listening to a song, a listener’s emotions may influence odds that the song will become an earworm. Though not much research has examined whether being in a particular emotional state increases odds of experiencing an earworm, it is reasonable to consider.  Even if one specific emotion or trend (e.g. towards being excited) isn’t associated with increased odds of an earworm, it could be that the greater the potency of an emotion, the more likely a song we hear [while highly-emotional] becomes an earworm.  For example, being extremely fearful may could increase odds of an earworm, whereas being modestly or slightly fearful may not.  It also may be that certain levels of arousal (associated with emotion) affect likelihood of an earworm.  Keep in mind that strong emotions may tie a song to memory, and each time we remember the emotion that was experienced, we may also recall the song and experience an earworm.  Furthermore, since memories are mood-dependent, if you are currently happy – you probably won’t experience an earworm from a song you listened to while depressed.
  • Listening volume: The level of decibels (volume) of the song that you listened to may increase or decrease its odds of becoming an earworm. Depending on the individual, a lower listening volume tends to require increased focus from the listener for him/her to perceive the song.  If you listen to music at an extremely low volume, you may be less prone to paying attention and encoding the auditory information.  Listening to a song at a normal, comfortable volume should be easier for your brain to perceive and remember than the lower volume.  When exposed to music at an extremely high volume, the brain is forced to pay attention to the song, possibly making it easier for the song to get stuck in your head.  That said, high volume music listeners are prone to sensorineural hearing loss, tinnitus, and stress – each of which can interfere with formation and retrieval of auditory memories.
  • Music exposure: The total amount of music to which you are regularly exposed can affect odds of getting an earworm. If you listen to just one or two songs per week, you may get zero earworms.  On the other hand, if you listen to hundreds of songs per week, you may end up with an earworm every day of the week – or possibly multiple earworms on the same day.  It may also matter how you’re exposed to the music.  A musician who’s regularly exposed to a lot of music may experience earworms more often than a librarian who just reads (and doesn’t listen to much music).
  • Neural activity: There are many things that influence a person’s neural activity including: arousal, damage (e.g. from biotoxins, concussions, etc.), dietary intake, exogenous substances (e.g. pharmaceuticals, supplements, etc.) and genetics/epigenetics. Activity within certain regions of the brain during song exposure, as well as upon song recall may predict whether someone is likely to experience an earworm.  For example, if activity in the auditory memory centers of the brain are enhanced and a simultaneous surge of dopamine is released (resulting from ingesting a particular drug) – a song may have increased likelihood of getting suck in a person’s head.  Consider that certain features of a person’s neural signature (e.g. brain waves, regional volumes, neurochemical turnover, regional activation, etc.) – could increase/decrease earworm odds.  If a song generates a strong excitatory response within the brain, it’s chance of becoming an earworm likely increases.

Who is most likely to experience earworms?

It is understood that 98% of people experience earworms and that men and women are affected at equal rates.  No studies have investigated as to whether earworms may be more or less likely to occur in populations based on a person’s age.  Since elderly adults (age 65+) are more prone to neurodegeneration and hearing loss (each of which impair auditory memory), we would expect earworms to be less likely among the elderly.

Interestingly, some research suggests that earworms tend to persist for a longer duration in women than men.  In addition, earworms reportedly irritate women more than men.  Keep in mind that most of the information available about earworms is derived from surveys – meaning the strength of the findings are not very strong.

Other findings by researchers were that songs with lyrics tend to provoke more earworms than those without lyrics.  This makes a lot of sense when considering that our brain is highly attuned to learning and perceiving spoken language, and lyrics are exactly that – spoken language.  When we hear lyrics, we subvocalize them and they cycle through the phonological loop, whereas background instruments do not.

For this reason, it should be expected that individuals listening to instrumentals (devoid of lyrics) are less likely to report earworms.  (This isn’t to suggest that instrumental-only music cannot cause earworms, rather, it’s suggesting that earworms are less likely to result from music without lyrics).  Another speculation is that certain neuropsychiatric disorders could increase and/or decrease likelihood of earworms.

It seems as though individuals with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) may be more prone to earworm attacks, but if properly treated with medication, earworm attacks normalize.  On the other hand, individuals with neurodegenerative disorders (e.g. dementia) and schizophrenia may be less likely to experience earworms as a result of impairment and/or dysregulation of auditory memory centers.  If attempting to know whether someone is likely to experience an earworm, account for their neurological status.

Will all futuristic music hijack your brain and cause earworms?

It would be interesting to know whether the per-capita prevalence of earworms has increased, decreased, or remained similar since the inception of music.  Some theorize that as artificial intelligence continues to improve, algorithms will be able to guide musicians to engineer their songs in such a way, that they are guaranteed to maximize excitability within the brains of most listeners.  As an example, we already know that ~119.80 BPM has been identified as the approximated optimal tempo for a hit song.

In addition to the tempo of a song, it may be possible for musicians to obtain feedback from artificial intelligence for vocal and instrumental optimization.  For example, the artificial intelligence may recommend slight tweaks in the pitch of vocals and modifications to the instrumental to improve song catchiness.  Another possibility is that artificial intelligence will create songs on its own by analyzing complex patterns and developing a unique voice.

Assuming artificial intelligence and music production equipment continues to improve, this should maximize song catchiness.  Maximizing the catchiness of songs may lead to formation of robust song-related memories with perhaps just a single (or even partial) listen.  As a result, it could be expected that, (unless you refrain from listening to music, have brain damage, or are chewing gum), earworms will be increasingly common in the future.

At this moment, researchers are unsure as to whether songs are being engineered to get stuck in our heads or whether our heads are easy prey for the songs.  It is most likely that a combination of both is occurring.  Musicians want to engineer their songs in such a way as to provide a unique, entertaining, emotionally-charged experience for their listener – and the listeners’ brain may enjoy the musical stimulation, making it highly susceptible to an earworm.

How often do songs get stuck in your head?

Feel free to leave a comment mentioning how often you experience earworms (i.e. get songs stuck in your head).  Does a song remain stuck in your head at least once per week, or does it happen less frequently?  To help others better understand your earworms, mention whether you generally perceive them as pleasant, annoying, or neither (i.e. you’re indifferent to their occurrence).

Also share your age, sex (male vs. female), how often you listen to music (e.g. daily for 3 hours), and whether you have any neuropsychiatric conditions (e.g. OCD) that may increase odds of experiencing an earworm.  If you’re able to recall, what song/tune was responsible for the most recent earworm that you experienced?  Assuming you vividly recall your most recent earworm, what specific portion of the song (e.g. lyrics) kept replaying in your head?

If you had to guess, how long would you estimate your earworms last (on average)?  Have you ever experienced multiple earworms in the same day?  For those that find earworms to be excruciatingly annoying, have you tried any mitigation strategies such as chewing gum or solving an easy anagram or Sudoku?  Did these strategies work for you, or did the earworm persist?  Should you know of any other effective way to interfere with the ongoing occurrence of an earworm, be sure to document it within your comment.

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • J July 7, 2016, 5:08 am

    Man, you’re crazy. This is quite a write up about songs stuck in your head.

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