How to Kick a Song out of your Head
Why earworms happen, and how to fight them.
You’ve suffered this ordeal. A song comes on the radio, but you’ve just pulled into work. Sometimes, you stay in your car and let it finish. But today you’re running late, so you kill the engine and hurry to your meeting. Hours later, the song won’t stop playing inside your head.
And so it goes, all day.
The song keeps on, no matter what you do. You try to think about something else. But the song returns, when you least expect it.
After three days, you consider therapy.
A week goes by, and you start to wonder if you’ve died, and this is your personal hell. You’re doomed to spend all eternity living your normal life, except now the only song you’ll ever hear again is “Bad Romance.” Or even worse, “Wrecking Ball.”
Not that you ever hated these songs. But anything played a hundred times can make you think you’re losing your grip.
This condition goes by a few different names. Known as earworms to some, stuck song syndrome to others, scientists have labeled it Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) and started observing its characteristics. Either way, it can come on without warning, and it’s sooo irritating. Nobody has ever died from INMI, but just wait.
You’re not alone
Almost everyone catches an earworm at some point. In fact, most people come down with one on a weekly basis. They’re almost as common as hiccups. So common, in fact, we hardly think about them.
Most ear worms last less than a day. But some can last weeks.
Recently, I had “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam stuck in my head for the better part of a month. It was my first earworm since “Call Me Maybe.”
One of my Twitter friends has been listening to “Love Fool” by The Cardigans in his brain all summer. Someone else I know had Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit” stuck in his head all through basic training.
Even if earworms are common, we don’t think of them as something we can remedy. But psychologists have.
What causes earworms
It can seem like any kind of song can lodge in your brain. However, researchers have found the structure of the tune matters.
Specifically, a song’s contagiousness depends on its tempo, pitch, note swings, and similarity to other songs. The aspects of a song that make it catchy are the same ones that make it wormy.
Wormy songs have a drive to them. An energetic pace. The melodies dip and rise dramatically, and they have a distinct shape.
Your brain relies on some of the same patterns for memory as it does for generating speech. In short, you use the same parts of the brain to remember a song as you do to talk on the phone.
Earworms happen when a song gets caught in a loop between your memory patterns and your speech generating ones. You’re reproducing the memory of the song over and over.
Why they’re so frequent
You’re more vulnerable to earworms in the midst of low attention states, i.e. when your mind wanders. During this time, the default mode network (DMN) of your brain takes over — the part responsible for self-generated thought, like daydreaming, and those “sudden epiphanies” we have.
That happens a lot.
Up to 40 percent of our thoughts are random and aimless, leaving plenty of open space for a song to wiggle its way in.
Stress can also trigger an earworm. Parts of your brain that normally reduce distractions tend to function worse when you’re tired and irritated. So if you’ve been working hard, or undergoing a major life change, expect an earworm. Just hope it’s a song you like.
We associate songs with memories
Thinking about a specific period or moment in your life can invite an earworm. For example, I first met my spouse during the summer of “Call Me Maybe” and “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
So these songs will remain with me for the rest of my life. Whether I like them or not.
Fortunately, they’re good songs. I’ll take them over others.
Later, “Blurred Lines” topped the charts during a brutal summer job. So when I think about those things, I’m vulnerable to those earworms.
How to dig out an earworm
A few remedies exist. Some people suggest listening to the offending song all the way through. Or playing it backwards.
You can also try talking to a friend. Or playing a video game. Anything that occupies your mind might help.
A more stubborn earworm might call on you to actually sing the song. The whole thing. Maybe in your shower, if you’re shy.
Musicians tend to suffer earworms a little more often. So you can always try playing the song.
Sometimes, that’s not enough. The song has burrowed deep. So deep you feel tempted to drive a screwdriver into your ear. Spoiler, that doesn’t help.
Recently, psychologists have found another answer.
Chewing gum can help
Researchers at the British University of Reading tested this theory. They played the first part of catchy songs for three groups of students, then monitored them for three minutes afterward. The first group was asked to tap their fingers. The second was asked to chew gum. The third was told to sit and do nothing.
The results: chewing gum helped.
The group who chewed didn’t think about the song as much as the other two. They’re earworm rate was about a third of the others.
So, problem solved. Unless you hate gum, like I do. But even then, I might be willing to buy some Juicy Fruit.
Juicy Fruit. The taste, the taste, the taste is gonna move ya. Actually, I’ve just made things worse. Sorry.