When it comes to music, there’s a fine line between catchy and annoying. And sometimes, a hook, a lick, even a single line of lyrics can lodge itself in your brain for days and refuse to leave. Science actually has a name for this phenomenon, one you’re probably familiar with — the slightly gross but extremely evocative “earworm.” So what can they tell us about why songs get stuck in your head — and more importantly, what can you do to banish them to the recesses of your brain where they belong?
Why songs get stuck in your head
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.
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 summer camp, the stresses of work or simply the boredom of office meetings.
Applied psychologist Aditya Shukla has developed a checklist of characteristics that describes what makes for an earworm, which he refers to as Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI). They are “involuntary, spontaneous, and repetitive perceptions of a particular musical sound in the absence of an external version of that sound,” he says, and the songs that create them include the following characteristics:
- The songs have a global musical theme/contour that is common, generic, and easy to remember
- The gradient of changes within the song, especially at turning points, is unconventional and unexpected – leaps, intervals, ups & downs, pauses, tempo, hook
- They are relatively more upbeat [and] faster … than the less earwormy songs
Earworms are triggered not just by hearing a song, but also by memory, mood, stress or even boredom. One commonality does exist in the types of songs that get stuck in your head, and according to psychologist David Levitin in a conversation with CNN, the formula is pretty simple:
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.
How to get a song out of your head
Everybody’s a little different, and getting rid of that looping snatch of song stuck in your head depends on your particular disposition. Sadly, 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.
Listen to it
It sounds too simple to be true, but there’s a science-tested reason that simply listening to your earworm-generating tune from start to finish can dislodge it. It’s called the Zeigarnek effect, named for psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, and suggests that the effect of interrupting an activity or thought process can actually make it more memorable than a completed task.
Shukla posits that listening to the full track that has generated that catchy snippet “resolves the incomplete song” and helps your brain dislodge it from active thought — “like getting done with unfinished business.”
Identify the song, track it down, and eliminate it
In some cases — the worst ones! — you have a melody or chorus stuck in your head but you have no idea what song it is from. If listening to a song from start to finish is enough to get it out of your head, 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. This is far from a foolproof method, however. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to remember a few lyrics, you’ll probably have a better shot finding the song by plugging them into Google (“random remembered phrases” + lyrics) in as many permutations as it takes to find what you are looking for. From there, you can try listening to the song in full on YouTube or your favourite music streaming app 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 with another catchy song that hopefully won’t also get jammed in there (we’re not looking to recreate the musical equivalent of Australia’s cane toad problem here).
You can think of another catchy song you know, choose one from a list of catchy favourites or simply ask your smart speaker or app to play a current pop hit. 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.
Weirdly, you might be able to sub your aural fixation for an oral one: A study from the University of Reading in the UK found that chewing gum seemed to interfere with the brain’s auditory processing centres, helping dislodge cyclical thoughts. According to the New York Daily News, the study’s co-author, Dr. Philip Beaman, likened the effect of gum-chewing to speaking inside your head, which can also affect your short-term memory and auditory processing — but talking in your head doesn’t also freshen your breath, so.
Another common solution for getting rid of an earworm is to distract yourself. 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.
Try a little cognitive therapy. WebMD recommends stopping invasive thoughts (or songs, in this case), by keeping a rubber band on your wrist and slapping yourself lightly with it when the unwanted invaders intrude into your brainspace.
Beaman, the same researcher who studied the effects of gum-chewing on memory, suggests that performing a simple mental exercise like a crossword puzzle can help you take your mind off the song stuck in your head — and hopefully leave it behind.
Give in to the madness with an all-earworm 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 self-tailored all-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 focus on songs featuring those elements.
To create your own playlist, you can follow the basic principles of setting up an exercise playlist. The trick is to sort your songs by beats per minute (BPM), and identify the simplest among them. Most pop songs have a BPM of about 120, so that’s a good place to start. The website walk.jog.fm will allow you to search songs by BPM; from there, pick your simple song poison, create your playlist, and rock out until that earworm is gone.
This article was originally published in August 2012 and substantially revised in August 2020 by Joel Cunningham to remove dead links and provide up-to-date information, advice and references, and replace the header image.