Have you been plagued by that endless repetitive tune that seemingly pops out of the blue and spontaneously plays in your head over and over and over again? Join the crowd. Almost all people experience those mind teasers called earworms. They’re also called brain worm, brain itch, stuck song or sticky music. Normally they don’t last very long, usually only 15 to 30 seconds but that’s enough to make them very annoying or distracting, especially when it is a song you don’t particularly like. On some occasions it’s not uncommon for a song to be stuck in your head for several days and even haunt your dreams.
Earworms are most often music because music is a multi-sensory stimulus that involves emotional and personal connotations. They are often songs with upbeat, catchy tunes or jingles so it is no wonder the ad men pounced on that phenomenon. A lot of research has been done on those invasive parasites but researchers aren’t altogether sure why some songs are more likely to get stuck in your head as opposed to other, equally catchy tunes.What they do know is that earworms are experienced by women more often than men, by musicians and people who are neurotic, tired or under stress. Women report them to be more irksome. They also seem to be very individual. The condition can become extreme for some people who are so plagued by these quirky brain doodles that it negatively affects their wellbeing. In that case it is called endomusia, an obsessive condition in which the intensity of earworms is more pronounced and the effects can be debilitating in people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), sometimes causing erratic behaviours and severe insomnia.
Eminent scientists at Dartmouth College and the University of Cincinnati have studied the earworm phenomenon and are suggesting that the earworm feeds off of the memory system of the left primary auditory cortex, an area of the brain responsible for hearing. Psychologically, earworms are a ‘cognitive itch’: the brain automatically itches back, resulting in a vicious loop.
Where do these earworms come from? Something in your current environment may trigger an earworm, like a word on a billboard, a package, an advertisement that reminds you of the lyrics of a song or seeing a friend and remembering the last karaoke song he belted out. Earworms can also be triggered by emotions, associations, or simply by listening to a melody you recently heard or one you hear often like a theme song of a series you are watching like the haunting, mesmerising The Skye Boat song of Outlander. Some people report the buggers appear when they are under stress. And yes, they can also come from a vivid dream featuring a particular song or musical segment.
My own last few earworms bear out that they are indeed very individual. I happened to catch a YouTube video of a mass dance recorded in a shopping mall in Salzburg, Austria to the tune of Do-Re-Mi from the famous musical The Sound of Music. It’s a catchy tune of course so bingo, it hung in my ears for days. Another YouTube video featured Ravel’s Boléro ballet choreographed by Maurice Béjart with Maya Plisetskaya as the principal dancer. The repetitious cadence of the notes is a natural for an earworm.
Earworms in literature, film and real life. Earworms have been creative fodder for a number of writers and film directors. Some great stories have been written around a pernicious earworm like Mark Twain’s A Literary Nightmare and Punch, Brother, Punch. Arthur C. Clarke’s 1957 science fiction short story The Ultimate Melody and Joe Simpson’s 1988 book Touching the Void are other examples. Films have mined this theme as well, usually featuring it as a control tool to drive someone insane or mentally unhinged sometimes by artificially planting an earworm. Mrs. Harris, the film about the murder of the Scarsdale diet doctor circles around the theme as the accused claimed she was obsessed by the song Blame it on Mame that pursued her day and night. Even SpongeBob SquarePants is not immune. In a 2010 episode entitled Ear Worm SpongeBob gets a song stuck in his head called Musical Doodle.
Some murderers in real life have confessed to be driven to torture and kill by a relentless earworm. Usually they ‘hear voices’ which command them to commit gruesome deeds. Which answers the question that earworms are not necessarily musical in nature.
How to get rid of it when it’s overstaying its welcome. When an unwelcome tune gets stuck in your head, you can ty out some of these random cures:
- Listen to another song or music or sing another song yourself.
- Divert your attention by getting mentally engrossed in another. activity that requires concentration like a word puzzle or Sudoku.
- Call a friend or family member to chat.
- Chew gum. Apparently scientists have discovered that chewing gum could help by ‘blocking the sub-vocal rehearsal component of auditory short-term or “working” memory associated with generating and manipulating auditory and musical images.’
And if these don’t help, don’t fret. You already know that eventually that pesky earworm will go away.
Are there any functional uses for earworms? Some enterprising companies are capitalizing on the subliminal characteristics of earworms by marketing services like language courses that rely on auditory input. One example is Earworms MBT (Musical Brain Trainer). Their application teaches you a foreign language by using music integration and rhythmic repetition in a series of audio lessons. This language learning technique starts with key phrases which are then set to music, and repeated a few times. The phrases and tunes are designed to become embedded in the auditory cortex of the brain, in the same way as that song that you cannot get out of your mind.