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The Science of Earworms, or Why You Can't Get that Damn Song Out of Your Head


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

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

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