The Art & Science of Sound

The Dreaded Earworm - And Why Songs Get Stuck In Your Head

by Jack Sharkey for KEF

For the last 48 hours I’ve had Ugly Kid Joe’s Everything About You stuck in my head.
Do Do Do Doooooo
Do Do Do Do
Er Er Er Errrrrr
Er Er Er Er
I hate the rain and sunny weather
And I…hate the beach and mountains too, boo hoo

Looping and looping and looping.

Having my brain ruled for two days by this particular song is distressing. I am always much happier when Three Little Birds – a frequent visitor – is stuck in my head.

I had to find out about why this was happening to me.

And I don’t like a thing about the city…
And I, I, I hate the countryside too.
And, I hate everything about you…

Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI)

There is a medical name for my condition – Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI). Most researchers have concluded that earworms are common occurrences among a broad spectrum of people, but the more you are exposed to music the more likely you are to catch the occasional earworm. Certain neurological and obsessive-compulsive disorders may also cause earworms. The more you sing the more likely you are to have an earworm, but beyond that, playing a musical instrument doesn’t have much of an effect either way.

Science refers to earworms as Involuntary Musical Imagery, but no one is exactly sure of the neurological mechanics of INMI. According to the researchers at the Earworm Project, 90% of all people experience earworms at least once a week, but in spite of how common they are, 15% describe them as “disturbing” and around 33% describe them as “unpleasant.” A study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition (2015) determined that the size of certain regions within the brain may play a role in the frequency of earworms, but what exactly is going on up in there during an earworm?

My uneducated take on earworms has always been that my brain was unsatisfied after hearing an uncompleted hook – kind of like my brain is searching its database for the rest of the song and can’t find it. Good theory, but I needed an expert.

Not having an expert handy I Googled “earworm.”   

I don’t like a thing about your mother,
And I, I hate your daddy’s guts too,
I don’t like a thing about your sister, no, no…

I stumbled upon (googled upon?) a paper by Kelly Jakubowski, Lauren Stewart, Daniel Mullensiefen (University of London, Goldsmiths) and Sebastian Finkel (University of Tubingen) entitled Dissecting and Earworm: Melodic Features and Song Popularity Predict Involuntary Musical Imagery, published in 2016 by the American Psychological Association.

I get sick when I’m around
I can’t stand to be around
I hate everything about you

Our brains reference information through repetitive patterns, think of an address on a storage disk – we recall memories and information based on a series of repetitive patterns that recall the entire memory. Before writing, we humans relied on memory – and memory only – to pass on learned information future humans needed for survival. Cognitive scientist David Rubin notes that this “led to various storytelling techniques that made tales more memorable and easily retold.” These techniques included aural patterns like rhythm and melody. Human evolution used music as an amazingly powerful tool to help us remember things and pass them along.  

Some say I got a bad attitude
But that don’t change the way I feel about you
And if you think this might be bringing me down
Look again ‘cause I ain’t wearing no frown

Music tends to act like other muscle memory or learned life skills (like playing a sport of driving a car): Once the activity is triggered, we don’t have to consciously think about it – the activity just happens. All you need is to hear the first few notes of a familiar song and the rest of the song just comes pouring out of your memory. Try to sing the lyrics to a favorite song without the song playing and you will be hard-pressed to get them all right. But if the same song comes on the radio in your car you can sing the entire tune without thinking about it. Research with MRI of test subjects found the area of the brain that goes active when a certain song is played remained equally active long after the song was paused or replaced with other non-musical stimuli.

In one study, researchers determined that INMI is an extremely common experience that involved areas of the brain that control aural perception, emotion, memory and spontaneous thought. Approximately 40% of our daily thoughts are involuntary (spontaneous) and INMI is the most commonly reported example.

The University of London study confirmed what we all kind of knew – earworms are generally harmless but “they can get in the way of what you are trying to do, and they can stop you from thinking straight.”

What Features Do Typical Earworm Tunes Have In Common?

Using “computational methods to analyze the structure of the songs” researchers at the Earworm Project compared certain test songs to control songs in attempt to find out exactly what made a song stick in your head. The Project is able to predict with 80% accuracy whether or not a song has the potential to become an earworm. In fact, studies have shown that songs can be written specifically to trigger INMI. Song and jingle writers consciously try to write songs with patterns that research has recognized as being more prone to causing INMI.

What Do People Who Frequently Experience Earworms Have In Common?

A paper released to the 12th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in 2012 by then-PhD candidate Georgina Floridou found that earworms are a “highly idiosyncratic phenomenon,” meaning my earworm experience is different than yours. Individuals who placed a higher importance on music in their lives were more likely to experience earworms than those who rated music as not very important. Another interesting find was that earworms in non-musically skilled people lit up different areas of the brain than INMI is musically skilled people.

What Triggers Earworms?

After studying 3,000 reports from the public, the researchers found that there are multiple reasons for earworms and that simply hearing a song – although a contributor – is not the not the “only factor that leads to spontaneous musical imagery.” Mood and our level of attention are contributors but engaging in repetitive tasks or mental idleness have also been shown to be contributing factors.

What Cures Earworms?

The project found that most people tend to simply passively accept earworms until they fade away on their own, but other helpful “cures” were also reported including engaging the earworms directly by listening to the tune aloud, consciously distracting themselves from the tune, or (most commonly) using another song to replace the earworm. The best cure I have found for an earworm? Chewing gum. It works every time.

I get sick when I’m around
I can’t stand to be around
I hate everything about you

Maybe an earworm is a remnant of an ancient need to retain certain memories we no longer use so we substitute some Justin Bieber (most commonly reported along with Lady Gaga) or Smoke On the Water (also a common INMI). Maybe its just a result of our brains craving order and repetition, or maybe INMI is our brain trying to finish a song we only partially heard.

Personally, I don't really care either way, I’m just looking forward to the time when my brain finds something else to listen to besides this classic ‘90s hair-metal novelty song it can’t seem to get enough of right now.

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