Earworms—the mysterious phenomenon of having a song stuck in your head. As many as 99 percent of us have experienced them, yet nobody is really sure how, when or why they are hit. What is this nearly universal occurrence and why is it still so little understood? Sometimes you know exactly where you caught the bug and other times you suddenly find yourself humming a long unheard tune… more than often you wished you had never heard it in the first place!
Nearly 3 out of 4 people get hooked by songs with lyrics, indicating that words tend to weigh on our mind. Nonetheless, commercial jingles and instrumental songs can infect our brains as well (which is exactly what commercials needed). Particularly potent songs often have simple, upbeat melodies, reports TLC, with catchy, repetitive lyrics and a surprise.
The element of surprise catches our attention, subconsciously pushing our brains to process the music more closely. While nearly everyone gets earworms, the research suggests that women and musicians are more inclined to have songs stuck in their heads.
Another trigger is stress. An extensive survey at the Goldsmith College in London highlighted one individual’s experience of having an earworm during a stressful exam when she was 16 years old. She now hears this earworm whenever she finds herself in stressful situations in her life.
For the most part, earworms are personal and everyone has distinct songs that get stuck in their heads. These songs depend on current popular tunes and advertising campaigns that frequently repeat commercial jingles. In 2003, reports WebMD, the most commonly stuck songs included Chili’s commercial jingle “Baby Back Ribs”, “Who Let the Dogs Out” and “We Will Rock You”.
The pop song “Who Let the Dogs Out” hit its peak in the early 2000s, even winning a Grammy record in 2001. The popularity of the song coincides with its frequency as an earworm, which indicates that earworms are also caused by repeated exposure to a song.
To answer this question, we may have to explore why people listen to music at all. Due to its emotional/personal weight, music tends to be stored better in memory (see the stress example from earlier) – especially when it comes with thorough repetition. It can thus serve as a memory aid, a force for community bonding or as part of a species’ mating rituals. As such, earworms may just be one’s musical memory flexing its muscles.
Researcher Professor Kellis of the University of Cincinnati compared earworms to a “cognitive itch,” that needed scratching. The researchers at Goldstone University drew the link to involuntary memory – similar to a “sudden desire to eat a particular dish for dinner or suddenly thinking of a friend one hasn’t seen in ages”.
The question then remains—how do we scratch that itch? Unfortunately, there is no absolute means of getting a stuck song out of our heads. Gawker recommends complete abstinence from the song: do not listen, hum or whistle the tune whatsoever. Other options include distracting yourself with simple activities or listening to other music (preferably not yet another earworm).
Some say that earworms are a nice problem to have; a testament to us being able to listen to, process and enjoy music. Healthy hearing is the first step in that direction. Learn more about our fascinating ears and the hearing process at Audicus Hearing Aids' Guide to Hearing.