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The Science of Ear Worms, or Why You Can’t Get That Damn Song out of Your Head

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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They go by many names: Brain worms, sticky music (thanks Oliver Sacks), cognitive itch, stuck song syndrome. But the most common (if also the most repugnant) is earworms, a literal translation from Ohrwurm, a term used to describe the phenomenon (and perhaps bring to mind an immediate association with corn earworms). If you’re an academic, you might refer to it as Involuntary Musical Imagery, which, of course, gets condensed to INMI.

What are we talking about? Again, back to the academics, specifically, C. Phillip Beaman and Tim I. Williams from the University of Reading, who in a 2010 paper, explain it like this: “Simply, an earworm is the experience of an inability to dislodge a song and prevent it from repeating itself in one’s head.”

Oh, thaaat.

In the last five years, earworms have become the subject of peer-reviewed scientific studies. In 2006, Steven Brown of Simon Fraser University even studied his own earworms and observed in the Journal of Consciousness Studies that they could be used as a basis for understanding how conscious experience can be split into multiple parallel streams. In 2008, moreover, Finnish researchers published a study that used the Interrnet to survey age, gender, personality and musical and linguistic competence of 12,420 countrymen who experienced the endless loops in their heads.

A recent entry into this growing literature is: “How do earworms start?” The paper, published online in Psychology of Music on September 27 by researchers from the University of London, characterizes the vast range of things that impel Involuntary Musical Imagery.

The study was an exercise in crowd sourcing. BBC radio station 6 Music runs a morning breakfast show in which listeners describe their earworms. Taking 2,424 reports during several months in both 2009 and 2010, the researchers analyzed 333 of them. The study also included  an analysis of 271 of the 1308 responses to online questionnaires from BBC sites as well as radio networks in the U.S. and Australia. The results are not entirely surprising, but they do demonstrate that almost any thought or sensory perception can hit the “on” switch. 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.

As a contribution from the science of everyday life, earworms could conceivably provide a window onto what 19th century German memory research pioneer Hermann Ebbinghaus called involuntary memory retrieval. Perhaps. Even if earworm “entomology”comes to naught, though, some of the answers to earworm surveys are still a hoot. Here’s a couple of examples from the Psychology of Music paper that was referenced by a BPS Research Digest blog post, which inspired me to write this one. (Also don’t forget the Internet earworm community.)

—”My bloody earworm is that George Harrison song you played yesterday. Woke at 4:30 this morning with it going round me head. PLEASE DON’T EVER PLAY IT AGAIN!!!”

—“I get it [“Portsmouth”] every time I travel along the same road in Blackpool, seldom anywhere else. When it happens it takes 24 hours to disappear.”

We solicited readers’ nominations for the most annoying earworms yesterday via Facebook. We winnowed the list and now are presenting this poll to ask readers to vote for the worst, most tiresome earworm plaguing us, thanks to supermarket music, radio and TV jingles, waiting room speakers and so on. Vote now to see the outcome.

Image: MarsBars/iStockphoto

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. NoMinorChords 2:00 pm 11/11/2011

    The article left out mention of the seminal work done by Dr. James Kellaris of the Univ. of Cincinnati ten years ago.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Spugpow 2:42 pm 11/11/2011

    Here’s a cool series of illustrations by Nemo Ramjet depicting various memetic lifeforms–including an ear worm.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Marc Levesque 7:00 pm 11/11/2011

    Earworms. An abstract form of OCD?

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  4. 4. Evergreener 10:33 am 11/12/2011

    The brain is a vehicle for the mind. The subconscious absorbs all information daily as recorded by our senses. This becomes memory as we sleep. We build a story around our daily hypnotic induction especially when traumatic. This story becomes our belief(s). Due to the pain we repress these stories are pushed deep into our mind and body. With all due respect to Dr. Oliver Sachs (who is one of my saints) it is our subconscious mind signalling the brain when an ear worm arises. The repetitive phrase is its own hypnotic induction but unlike the childhood message (s)that produced the pain this is a gift. How? Upon reflection on the annoying phrase one can uncover a memory and a corresponding emotion and as important the belief itself. So those pesky ear worms are doing us a big favor….trying to get our attention to release it before it can develop into another disappointment or even an illness to get our attention. There are many energy medicine techniques available to help release the buried residue and conditioning of these beliefs like Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) Thank those ear worms…they are your hidden friend that wants to be made conscious.

    From my forthcoming book: Strategies for Emotional Empowerment or SEE: How to SEE Within to Heal

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  5. 5. Dredd 12:21 pm 11/13/2011

    Let’s not leave out microbe – symbiont involvement as a source of a whole host of activities “underneath the hood” of our cognition.

    An automatic transmission changes gears in a complex manner without requirement from our “clutch” or “gear shifter”.

    Earworms … automated buggy intrusions.

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  6. 6. Jerzy New 8:47 am 11/14/2011

    One can easily get rid of an earworm by listening or humming another, non-sticking song. This can be used also to forget irritating advertisements, slogans, smells etc.

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  7. 7. Jerzy New 8:47 am 11/14/2011

    BTW, I thought the article is about Dermopterans!

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  8. 8. Jerzy New 8:22 pm 11/14/2011

    DermAptera, of course!

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  9. 9. Lamalley 12:58 am 09/7/2012

    Some one please help me. My mother has had ear worm for 3 years since my dad passed away24/7. It interferes with normal activities like balancing check book, etc. What can we do to stop this. She can change the songs but she can not get rid of them. Any thoughts advice?

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