Music Science

Why Songs Get Stuck in Your Head

They’re called earworms: songs that get stuck in your head and create a “cognitive itch” that you just can’t seem to get rid of, no matter how hard you scratch. It was German psychiatrist Cornelius Eckert who first described such tunes as earworms (or Ohrwürmer) back in 1979 – but people have been getting music stuck in their consciousness for way longer than that. In his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, neurologist Oliver Sacks notes that centuries ago, a folk music manuscript referred to an earworm as “the piper’s maggot”.

So what makes a song prone to becoming maggot-like? Jingle writer Chris Smith told the BBC that one of the key elements of an earworm is repetition. “If you have something with a lot of varied content, it’s not so easily assimilated,” he said. Lauren Stewart, founding director of the Music, Mind and Brain program at the University of London, thinks the musical structure of earworms may be even more specific than that. According to her research, a hallmark of the piper’s maggot is closely spaced musical intervals and long notes – just like in the chorus of ABBA’s Eurovision-winning earworm “Waterloo”.

In the psychology world (where earworms are known as Involuntary Musical Imagery – or INMI), studies have shown that over 90 per cent of people experience INMI on a regular basis, and that you’re more likely to experience it if a) you’re a lady, and/or b) you’re musically inclined. But what makes our brain latch onto a particular ditty, and continue playing it Guantanamo style? Research has identified eight dominant themes that describe the circumstances of INMI episodes: recent exposure (like when you hear Lou Bega’s insufferable “Mambo No. 5” in the organic fruit and vegetable store, and continue hearing it all day long), repeated exposure (like when a certain child plays a certain Wiggles song over and over again, so it gets burnt into your brain), association (which can be brought about by a person, situation or even just a word), recollection (like visiting a place that reminds you of a song you once heard in that location), anticipation (which typically occurs before and after a gig for which you are particularly jazzed), affective states (when you hear a song that matches your mood), dreams (of course) and mind wandering.

Most folks describe their earworms as either “neutral” or “pleasant”, but around a third of people rate them as “disturbing” or “annoying”. Should you be one of these individuals driven to murderous intent over a piper’s maggot, firstly, you need to calm down (there are worse things you could be suffering from, like actual maggots) and secondly, you needn’t kill, for there are means by which you can purge an earworm, though sadly none of them are sure-fire. You can fire up your headphones and listen to the song, thereby offering your brain a sense of completion. Or, you can listen to a different song. Some folks have a “cure” song, which is a track they play in their heads when attempting to drive out a vexing tune – but then you run the risk of contracting a new earworm, setting you back to square one. (Fun fact: in one study, Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” was discovered to be a favoured cure track – proof that rock is good for you.)

If all else fails, swing by a servo and grab a stick of chewy. A study at the University of Reading found that people are less likely to think about sticky songs if they’re masticating a bit of gum, which is a bit ironic and maybe not true for all of us, but when a certain supermarket insists on broadcasting Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” every hour on the hour, you need all the pseudo-science you can get.

This article first appeared in frankie magazine issue 76 (Mar/Apr 2017).

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