Earworms: Those Intrusive Songs Stuck in Your Head

manic looking man listening to music on headphones
Photograph courtesy of John Hayes Photography via a Creative Commons license.

If you could hear inside my sister’s head, it would often sound like “Deck the halls with boughs of holly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.” For years, she has had this “earworm” – a song that plays in her head without control. Her mind acts like a broken record player that repeatedly plays the same song again and again, especially during quiet times when she is alone.

Having a song stuck in your head is a common experience. Research has shown that 92% of people experience earworms at least once a week. So it isn’t surprising that many myths exist about them. One common belief is that annoying music is more likely to become stuck.  Another is that certain music characteristics, such as simplicity and repetitiveness, cause songs to become intrusive. It is also thought that having earworms is more likely for certain types of people, including musicians and women. Finally, some people believe that interrupting a song creates a sense of incompleteness that leads the song to remain in the consciousness, making it more likely to become an earworm.

Researchers from the psychology department at Western Washington University have investigated these common beliefs about earworms, as reported in a journal article recently published in Applied Cognitive Psychology. They conducted five studies on earworms: an online survey of 299 participants, an experimental diary study of 16 participants, and three lab experiments with 89, 123 or 139 participants.

In the online survey, participants answered questions about their most recent earworm, general music experience and basic demographics. The other research studies used methods to induce earworms. During the lab experiments, participants evaluated three songs, completed a puzzle (maze, Sudoku or anagram), and then reported the extent to which they heard the three songs playing in their heads while completing the puzzle. They completed either an easy or difficult puzzle.

Although annoying songs like advertising jingles can become stuck in someone’s head, this appears to be relatively rare. Researchers found that people generally know and like the songs that become intrusive.

They also found that the intrusive songs are virtually unique to each individual, which suggests that lists of the most potent earworms are misleading. Earworms are mainly formed from recent and repeated exposure to a song, so they’re influenced by listening tastes. This is supported by a previous study that identified music exposure as the primary trigger for earworms, followed by memory triggers.

Researchers found no gender difference in how earworms were experienced. However, musicians did report having earworms more frequently than non-musicians, as did people who listen to music almost constantly.

The researchers also interrupted some of the songs that they played, expecting the interrupted songs to trigger earworms more frequently than the songs played to completion. However, no difference was observed due to song interruption.

Finally, they analyzed how participants responded to completing the different puzzle tasks. Researchers found that the best way to stop an earworm is to perform a verbal task: solve an anagram, have an engaging conversation or read an interesting book. But you don’t want the task to be too easy or too challenging, or your mind will wander and the earworm may return. I guess this means that I should give my sister some engrossing novels and a book of anagrams for her birthday?

For more information about earworms, check out my KQED Science blog.

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