Ask LH: How Can I Get This Horrible Song Out Of My Head?

I've had Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" stuck in my head for a week and it's driving me insane. How can get this song out of my head so I can think straight?

Title image remixed from FuzzBones (Shutterstock).


Please Deliver

Dear PD,

Ouch! And now it's stuck in ours, so thanks. Now, we need to work on getting it out of our heads together. Let's start by taking a look at the phenomenon behind what scientists call "earworms" so we can understand what's going on before we banish this horrible song from our brains.

Why Songs Get Stuck In Your Head To Begin With

We know that some people are more susceptible to earworms than others, but according to research from James J Kellaris, PhD at the University of Cincinnatti, nearly all of us (about 98 per cent) have had a song stuck in our heads at some point.

So where do earworms come from? It's a mixture of things. Scientific American points to one survey that suggests they can come from pretty much anywhere:

Hearing The Village People's "YMCA" can get the mental tape rolling. Other head music may be induced by a memory from camp, the stresses of work or simply the boredom of office meetings.

Essentially, earworms are triggered not just by hearing a song, but also by memory, mood, stress, and even boredom. One commonality does exist in the types of songs that get stuck in your head. According to psychologist David Levitin in a conversation with CNN, it's a pretty simple formula:

The songs that get stuck in people's heads tend to be melodically and rhythmically simple, says Daniel Levitin, a psychologist who studies the neuroscience of music at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. It's usually just a segment of the song, not the entire thing from beginning to end... "What we think is going on is that the neural circuits get stuck in a repeating loop and they play this thing over and over again," Levitin said.

Neural circuits stuck on repeat? Not fun, right? Image: Matthew Hickey.

What You Can Do To Get Rid Of A Horrible Song

Everybody's a little different, and getting rid of that looping song in your head depends on your own disposition. As far as science is concerned, no verified cure for earworms exists. That doesn't mean, however, you can't find a successful approach to combating them.

With that in mind, here are a few different tricks for destroying that tune and getting your thinking brain back.

Identify The Song To Destroy It

In some cases (the worst ones), you have a melody or chorus stuck in your head, but you have no idea what the song is. Some people believe listening to a song from start to finish is enough to get it out of your head, but you have to know what song it is first.

To do this, you can use an app like Shazam, or Soundhound to identify the song. Just hum or sing the tune into the app and if you're lucky, it'll identify the song right away. From there, you can either rest now that you know the earworm's origin, or try listening to the song in full on YouTube to get rid of it.

Replace Your Earworm With Another Song

Another method to get rid of an earworm is to try and replace it quickly with another catchy song. Since earworms come from so many different places, your best solution might be to hear another song.

Amazingly, webapps exist to help you out. Earwurm and Unhearit will both load up a random popular song with the intent of removing your old earworm. It may be like sending in a mountain lion to kill a snake, but at least it gets the first song out of your head.

Another method provided by one researcher suggests that singing God Save the Queen" incredibly slowly seems to work to banish a song altogether.

Distract Yourself To Forget Your Earworm

Another common solution for getting rid of an earworm is to distract yourself away from the song in your head. For some strong-willed people, this is as simple as thinking about something else. For the rest of us, it takes a little more work.

For instance, you can try a little cognitive therapy on yourself. WebMD recommends stopping unwanted thoughts (or songs, in this case), by keeping a rubber band on your wrist and slapping yourself, or by adding a positive thought (maybe make up a killer music video in your head?).

Otherwise, you can try distracting yourself in other ways. Check into Facebook, take a walk, do a crossword puzzle, play a game on your phone — anything that gets your mind off the song in your head.

Mash It Up With Your Own Custom Earworm Killing Playlist

If using one random song is like sending in a mountain lion to kill a snake, then overwhelming yourself with a playlist of nothing but earworm songs is like sending in a robot dinosaur with lasers for eyes to kill the mountain lion. This solution is a custom made, earworm playlist filled with popular songs. We know that the songs that get stuck in people's heads are harmonically and rhythmically simple, so your playlist should include those elements.

To create your own playlist, you can follow the same basic principles of setting up an exercise playlist. The trick is to sort your songs by beats per minute (BPM) and identify the most simple among them. You can use third-party utilities to automatically get the BPM of your iTunes library, we like Free BPM Detector for Windows, and Tangerine for Mac.

Most pop songs have a BPM of about 120, so that's a good place to start. From there, pick out a ton of simple songs, create your playlist, and rock out until that earworm is gone.

We've also started a collaborative Spotify playlist of earworm songs. If you use Spotify, go ahead and add whatever song is stuck in your head right now so we can all hear it.

Getting rid of an earworm isn't an exact science, so you have to find which method works best for you. If you want to take part in some of the research into earworms, the University of London teamed up with BBC 6Music and the British Academy, to create a simple questionnaire where you can submit your own experiences.

Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.


    Careless Whisper, guaranteed to replace any other song stuck in your head...That sax...

    I have actually found that a fairly reliable way or getting rid of that annoying song is to force yourself to listen to it multiple times. You will eventually get sick of it! :)

    Easy, listen to some classical music... you will soon have that annoying song out of your head.

    If you're reading this, there's a good chance you have an earworm now and were googling ways to cure it.
    The replacement method works. Observe:

    Everybody was kung-fu fighting
    Those cats were fast as lightning
    In fact it was a little bit frightning
    But they fought with expert timing

    All the single ladies
    All the single ladies
    All the single ladies
    All the single ladies

    First world problem

      First world comment.

      This is a lifehack/tech blog Andrew. EVERYTHING here is a first world problem. It's a first world site. FFS.

        Haha good point.

        A few years ago I volunteered at a Ugandan orphanage, now you don't hear any of THEM complaining that Gizmodo's content is irrelevant.

          Good point +2.
          That "firstworld problems" meme is about the wankiest one there is.

            umadbro? :trollface:

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