Musical Earworms: Why songs stick in the head & how to dispel them

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Earworms are those bits of songs that crawl through your mind and find a home in the middle of nowhere and everywhere. You know you have an earworm when there is a song stuck in your head. Do you imagine songs and endlessly replay a musical sequence in your head?

Summary: Why does the stuck song syndrome occur?

Songs get stuck in the head because of factors like musical composition, mind-wandering, cognitive engagement, background activity, personality, bodily feedback, and environmental triggers like musical engagement. These are coupled with changed activity in neural networks for inhibition, thought awareness, emotion-based motivation, and spontaneous self-generated thoughts.

Sticky music occupies the phonological loop of memory with resources from the auditory cortex and sustains itself via ironic processes & Zeigarnik effect to fill-up the cognitive space available during mind-wandering – the amount of available space is determined by the working memory load and competing streams of information. Being aware of them as well as their incomplete nature makes them last longer, especially when the mind is unoccupied.

Earworm songs have a generic melodic theme with unexpected attractive transitions. Personality traits like schizotypy, openness to experience, & neuroticism increase the likelihood of the stuck song syndrome. In extreme cases, musical hallucinations manifest as OCD symptoms.

Click here for evidence-based ways to remove that song stuck in your head.

Chew gum to extinguish a song stuck in your head! Chewing diverts and blocks resources from the brain that are responsible for pushing music into your mind's ear. Click To Tweet We get earworms because some catchy songs with unexpected changes manage to spontaneously reactive its memory in an incomplete way. Being aware of it and the need to complete it keeps it going. Click To Tweet

What are musical earworms?

Definition: Earworms (or Involuntary musical imagery) are involuntary, spontaneous, and repetitive perceptions of a particular musical sound in the absence of an external version of that sound. Musical imagery is like replaying music in the mind.

Musical hallucinations are a little different from involuntary musical imagery. This post is largely about musical imagery but also applies to mild versions of hallucinations.

Musical Hallucinations

  • The music you hear feels like it is coming from the outside but it isn’t
  • Less repetitive, More vivid
  • Is mood-congruent: hallucinations reflect the current mental state
  • Less persistent
  • Linked to distress & disorders like Tinnitus, Schizophrenia, OCD
  • All types of sounds can be hallucinated

Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI)

  • You are consciously aware that it is from within the mind
  • More repetitive, Not always vivid
  • Earworms can be incongruent with the mood
  • More persistent
  • Usually benign, mildly distressing, rarely linked to OCD
  • Short incomplete musical loops become INMIs

Musical earworms have other names too – Involuntary musical imagery (INMI), brainworm, sticky music, sticky tunes, musical itch, and the stuck song syndrome. The word “Earworm” probably comes from its German counterpart “Ohrwurm.” They appear spontaneously out of nowhere and we rarely have conscious control over them. Some involuntary musical bits are unwanted and annoying, some have no effect on our emotions & behavior, and some are enjoyable/wanted. People often tolerate them till they die out and some engage in active behaviors to remove them.

Earworms are a relatable type of spontaneous cognitions (thoughts that pop into awareness for no apparent reason). Another common spontaneous cognition is rumination – repetitive thoughts about emotional distress.

Let us quickly go through research done on songs that stick in your head.

The science of musical earworms and why songs get stuck in the head

The phenomenon of earworms: Why do songs get stuck in the head?

Music is a universal phenomenon. We select music that makes us feel and remember (or forget). As a byproduct of musical activity, songs crawl into our minds and occupy it.

In a study on 3000 people from 2016, researchers surveyed the popularity of earworms and used 83 different summaries of musical composition to figure out what makes a song more likely to be an earworm. The study shows that the majority of involuntary musical images are snippets from popular songs. Most sticky songs have 3 unique features that make them more likely to stick in the head:

  1. The songs have a global musical theme/contour that is common, generic, and easy to remember
  2. The gradient of changes within the song, especially at turning points, is unconventional and unexpected – leaps, intervals, ups & downs, pauses, tempo, hook
  3. They are relatively more upbeat, faster, catchy than the less earwormy songs

But recent exposure to a tune might be more influential than these characteristics.

Songs that stick in your head – earworms – are usually upbeat and pop-like. But, they have unexpected transitions that stand out. Click To Tweet

Bede Williams, a researcher from the University of St. Andrews, highlights the 5 factors that an earworm:

  1. Surprise (musical, emotional, tonal, etc.)
  2. Repetition (rhythmic & frequency)
  3. Melodic potency (the influence of musical content, emotional value)
  4. Predictability (how reliably a musical structure can be predicted before it occurs)
  5. Receptiveness (the subjective experience and perception of music)

While this intuitively sums up the characteristics of an earworm, the story is far more complex. Research highlights a number of other cognitive processes, physiological processes, and environmental cues that facilitate an earworm.

Unidentified, incomplete and unresolved music is like an unfinished thought that needs completion

The incomplete nature of earworms has a role to play. Incomplete music creates a need to resolve it. People don’t always recognize the earworm song; they also don’t always remember how it ends. Unresolved music sustains itself till it is resolved or dissipated. In this case, the music is like a sticky conflicted thought.

The Zeigarnik effect explains why listening to the song helps extinguish it. It states that we remember interrupted and incomplete thoughts better than completed/resolved thoughts. Involuntary thoughts occur because they are incomplete and the frequency of re-occurrence depends on the need to complete and resolve them. So identifying a song, listening to it in its entirety, remembering how it ends, etc. resolves the incomplete song – like getting done with unfinished business. By extension, accidentally listening to a small bit of a song you like can induce an INMI because there is a need to resolve it’s incompleteness.

Who experiences involuntary musical imagery?

It does not matter if you are a musical expert, tone-deaf, congenitally deaf, depressed, obsessive, schizophrenic, brain-damaged, etc. As far as we know, human brains, whether neurologically healthy or structurally far from normal, experience some form of auditory hallucinations. Some of these hallucinations can be earworms or even voices.

A study on 12,519 people from Finland estimated that 90% of the population experienced an earworm once a week. And, 33% experienced them daily. They also found evidence to show:

  • Women experience involuntary musical imagery more often than men
  • The frequency of earworms reduces as we age
  • Musical activity & practice is related to more experiences and longer-lasting, often instrumental, earworms
  • Musicians are less annoyed by it
  • Familiar music with lyrics is the most common candidate for both musicians and non-musicians
  • Musicians tend to have more biological resources dedicated to musical memories and are more easily “cued” to have musical imagery – their internal experience with music is often richer and primed by musical activities
90% of the population experiences an earworm once a week. And, 33% experience them daily. To remove them, you can stop all movement and freeze. Chewing gum and completing a tune helps too. Click To Tweet

Research converges to the idea that musical hallucinations are omnipresent in all sorts of brains. Look at this case study of an almost-deaf patient who hears melodious voices in her head in spite of her congenital hearing impairment. The clockwork underlying musical imagery (and hallucinations) is a lot more complex than it appears. It’s not just about the song, it’s about the brain, the environment, and dozens of personality and cognitive factors.

Myth 1: Only annoying and obnoxious songs stick in your head.

Truth & Explanation: Rarely. Songs you love also produce earworms. It is possible that some of the annoyance is generated because the song is stuck in your head and attempts to extinguish it fail. The song is not always annoying at first.

Myth 2: Auditory imagery has something to do with the song only.

Truth & Explanation: Not necessarily. Some songs may be more likely to create an earworm and some people might be more susceptible to earworms. Some environments and background activities trigger earworms too.


How do people react to involuntary musical imagery?

People who consider music as an important aspect of life have more and longer earworm episodes. Diary studies show the cognitive resources they require exceeds the best estimate of our auditory memory’s holding capacity.

According to the study, when people try to stop the earworm, they end up thinking more about it. It’s like if someone tells you “don’t imagine a blue apple,” you end up imagining a blue apple. One explanation for this is the Ironic process theory which says that there are 2 levels to manage mental events – one is a constant unconscious monitoring process (noticing an earworm) and the other is a conscious operation process (attempts to stop it). The first process brings the melody into awareness and the second process tries to exert control on it which makes the melody more pronounced. Research shows that the monitoring process continues to monitor even when we try to distract ourselves from the thought and this makes the original thought more accessible & salient. So deliberate attempts to suppress a melody/thought makes it more likely to surface and stick around. The earworm doesn’t just occupy the auditory working memory like it’s a song saved on a computer disk, it is actively sustained through the ironic process where the act of suppressing keeps fuelling it. In short, thinking about stopping an earworm ironically sustains & maintains it.

Because awareness of an earworm maintains itself via the ironic process, repeated experiences make it a prime candidate for mental “habits” and these habits get associated with different contexts – cab-rides, night-time, etc. These become environmental and contextual triggers in some cases.

Across 2 large sample studies, researchers addressed 3 important questions –

  1. How do people react to earworms?
  2. Do those reactions determine their behavior?
  3. Are those behaviors effective in dealing with involuntary musical imagery (INMI)?

In their study, about 75% people tried to talk, hum, or sing as a response to the INMI episode and 60% tried to identify the song. This suggests that people are familiar with the song yet unable to recall it and that might create an annoyance. The lack of identification also points to how the song is an “unresolved bit of sounds.” Some may even experience a tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon with it. According to their data, most people are ambivalent, tolerant, or pleased with the musical bits that repeat in the mind’s ear. However, a number of people are annoyed and employ a diverse range of coping mechanisms to eliminate the earworm.

With a large enough sample size, researchers could categorize 2 ways in which people dealt with an earworm – distraction & engagement.

Common strategies to extinguish an earworm

Distractions: Most people used various distractions like musical distractions (other songs), verbal distractions (conversations, talking, audio snippets), visual tasks (games, puzzles), physical tasks (breathing, exercise), and challenging tasks (anything that demands mental resources). Musical and auditory tasks were the most effective in dealing with them. A faculty of memory called the object-oriented episodic record explains why auditory distractions work better – in our working memory, competition between 2 streams (earworm & distraction) would be the highest if they are similar. Music and speech patterns share neural structures and are stronger competitors than say an earworm and an unrelated jigsaw puzzle.

Engagement: Some people believed listening to the entire song was an effective way to kill the INMI. Participants often chose to listen to the song a few times before the INMI was extinguished. The Zeigarnik effect discussed above explains why this works – listening to a song completes the unfinished short musical sequence because our brain wants to resolve it’s incompleteness.

A few people also reported what they call a “Cure” song – a song that does not generate an earworm but wipes out an existing one. However, not much is know about this today. Perhaps a cure song has certain musical qualities that occupy the mental space similar to an earworm but resolves itself because of familiarity and one’s ability to complete a predictable tune till the end.

4 factors which make musical imagery subjective

Researchers often measure involuntary musical imagery with a test called the involuntary musical imagery scale and it assesses 4 important factors which account for all the subjective individual differences that take place as a response to earworms:

  1. Negative valence factor: How strongly do you feel negatively about the earworm? How badly do you want to suppress it or get rid of it?
  2. Movement factor: Do you groove to an earworm?
  3. Help factor: Do you find it useful to have an earworm? Does it help you concentrate on other work?
  4. Personal reflection factor: Does the INMI reflect your personal life and unique experiences?


Does your personality, preferences, and behavior make you an earworm-hugger?

People tend to have earworms of songs they like. This is supported across most experiments but the conclusion isn’t very clear. People listen to songs which they like more often than songs they don’t like. Therefore, the probability of a song becoming an earworm is skewed by the fact that liked and preferred songs are heard more often than songs that are disliked. And environmental factors such as recently heard songs and reading lyrics can increase the likelihood of having an INMI.

A study on personality and INMI has some interesting findings. People who have a tendency to engage their body while listening to music experience more musical imagery – those who tap, groove, move arms, nod, clap, headbang, sing-along, etc. experience a higher frequency of earworms. One explanation is that physical movement is a part of the neural structures that produce and synthesize music – mainly the pre-motor areas that prepare the body for coordinated movement and regions involved in singing. Another one is that feedback mechanisms between internal and external experiences sustain the pairing of behavior and cognition.

Their study also found a few personality traits that affect musical imagery. Neuroticism (characterized by worrying, anxiety, concern) had the strongest relationship with increased frequency of earworms as well as musical engagement & negative responses to annoyance from earworms. Openness to experience had the strongest relationship with the length of the earworm (more open, longer snippet) and increased interference with other mental processes. This suggests that the abstract nature of openness to experience is linked with the idea of “welcoming” stimuli. Extraversion was linked with the lack of control over INMIs. Another study shows that openness to experience, neuroticism, and positive schizotypy (fantasy thinking, odd experiences & sensations, odd perception) are linked to a higher frequency of INMIs. Neuroticism is typically linked to a pre-occupation with selective thoughts. In this case, musical thoughts.

People with musical training do have more INMI experiences and those who are actively engaged with music (concerts, listening) tend to find it helpful in day-to-day life. They also find it groovy – primed to move their body to music.

If you are a musician and have a song stuck in your head and just can't remove it, try playing the melody on an instrument. Earworms are like unresolved repetitive thoughts, so playing them resolves them. Click To Tweet

Does your current activity and cognitive space matter?

Through an experience sampling method, researchers have uncovered one possible mechanism which allows a song to get stuck in one’s head. They propose that the activity a person is performing determines how much the mind wanders and that mind-wandering creates the opportunity for songs to stick around, possibly to fill up the mental space. A number of people experience mind-wandering while doing work, especially routine habitual work. Earworms may just grab that opportunity and become a phenomenon that takes place in the wandering mind.

Mind-wandering means large unpredictable fluctuations in brain activity and seemingly random access to units of memory. Spontaneous cognitions like earworms often pop into our awareness when the mind is idle, probably because of reactivating memory systems and fluctuations in attention.

This notion of filling up cognitive space is corroborated by another line of studies that look at cognitive load – the demand on mental resources for doing an activity. Study participants watched dialog-less music-only movie trailers. The trailers induced an INMI in 65% of them. To engage mental space to observe the effect of mental load, researchers gave cognitive tasks of varying difficulty to a portion of the participants. The likelihood of experiencing an INMI reduced to about 33% with the lowest difficulty cognitive task and reduced even further with higher difficulty cognitive tasks. This shows that an increase in cognitive load made it harder for an INMI to manifest. If the cognitive load is too little, our attention goes back to the earworm. A sweet-spot exists for different types of activities and earworms.

A model of working memory, which has come to be accepted as an accurate model, has a dedicated auditory component to it – the phonological loop. Musical memories and musical experiences engage the phonological loop and the auditory cortex. Earworms can occur and sustain themselves by utilizing dedicated resources from the phonological loop – potentially independent of the resources needed to carry-on with other concurrent daily activities. For example, doing a visual puzzle occupies another component called the visuo-spatial sketchpad and that doesn’t pull resources from the phonological loop. So, a person can do a complex jigsaw puzzle and have an unwanted distracting earworm – Both occupying different components of working memory even though the cognitive load is high.

To remove earworms, one can occupy the phonological loop with competing streams of information like conversations, music, and background news. This is also the reason why auditory distractions are better than visual distractions to effectively remove musical imagery.

To dispel a musical earworm, flood your brain with sounds by talking or listening. That competes with the earworm and in the process, pulls resources away from the earworm – ultimately killing it. Click To Tweet

But what if musical earworms completely occupy the mental space and become a parasite in your mind?

Can earworms be a form of OCD?

People often seek out the song which contains the earworm melody but active attempts to stop it are not always successful. Many people passively accept the earworm but some obsess over the melody and compulsively seek it out. One line of research now considers seeking out songs to extinguish earworms a form of obsessive behavior. One example is the case of a 32-year-old woman with a history of musical obsessions. Her symptoms of intrusive musical imagery reduced when treated as an obsessive-compulsive disorder patient. Another case of a 19-year-old male demonstrates how musical obsession can be a manifestation of OCD.

However, I’d like to point out that this does not mean earworms predict OCD or earworms are indicators of OCD. These cases point to 2 important factors. One, Understanding earworms can be useful to understand OCD and two, in some patients, OCD manifests as musical obsession and listening compulsions. Similar to how intrusive thoughts of being dirty/contaminated can manifest through compulsive bathing.

In the context of OCD, earworms can be a major stressor even though external music is not. After all, hallucinations and intrusions are different from their real-world counterpart – music.

How similar is imagined music and real music for the brain?

Involuntary musical imagery has a rhythmic component. In a study which explored the tempo (speed of the rhythm) of earworms found that there is a moderate correlation between the actual tempo of a song and the tempo of the earworm. The same study looked at subjective arousal (emotional, physiological, self-reported) and found that the tempo is associated with one’s mood, analogous to how real, external music is associated with one’s mood. Emotional responses to songs stuck in the head tend to be stronger than songs that are deliberately recalled as musical memories. Although earwormy music tends to have more emotional amplitude, it’s valence (positive emotionality or negative emotionality) doesn’t matter much. So emotional reactions to musical imagery may be based on emotionally amplified versions of the original song.

One of the more detailed brain-imaging studies done to demystify tunes that stick in the head shows that INMIs are related to brain regions involved in perception, emotions, memory, and spontaneous thoughts. They found a link between INMI frequency & the cortical thickness of the right Heschl’s Gyrus (HG, -ve correlation) and the right Inferior Frontal Gyrus (IFG, +ve correlation). The HG is strongly related to auditory perception & voluntary musical imagery (reflecting engagement behavior & ironic monitoring processes). The IFG plays a role in “pitch memory” which probably reflects why earworms sound accurate in the mind.

The IFG may be involved in suppressing musical imagery. Lesser cortical thickness in the right IFG may reflect a proneness to unwanted INMIs (failure to inhibit). They also found a link between INMI frequency and the angular gyrus – a region well implicated in self-generated thoughts. The angular gyrus activity probably reflects how the earworm is generated and regulated internally. They also found a correlation between emotional aspects of INMI and gray matter volume in emotional processing regions like the orbitofrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe – suggesting that there is a conscious or unconscious level of emotional processing.


How to get rid of unwanted earworms and repetitive musical hallucinations?

I propose 7 science-backed ways to kill an unwanted earworm.

  1. Use the Zeigarnik effect – Listen to the entire original music that has the earworm. This would complete the incomplete thought which manifests as an earworm and a completed thought has little reason to stay.
  2. Increase the cognitive resource demand – Perform difficult mental tasks such as planning a day or memorizing phone numbers. Try generating random numbers with arbitrary rules like it must be divisible by 3 and 7. You can start a 1000-7 routine and count down from 1000 in steps on 7. 1000, 9993, 9984, 9977, etc. An occupied mind has little opportunity to create earworm manifestations.
  3. Destroy cues – Seeing lyrics, musical practice, conversations about songs can trigger an earworm. Avoid them. If you are a musician, you can try to replicate the earworm and resolve it like in the Zeigarnik effect.
  4. Stop physical movements – Staying steady and disabling your movement cuts the feedback loop between music & movement. It also tries to inhibit the pre-motor neurons that are associated with music. Don’t clap, don’t tick, don’t nod, don’t move even a little bit, disconnect your body from your musical mind.
  5. Chew gum – You can stop involuntary musical thoughts by chewing gum. Chewing gum engages the Articulatory Motor Programming network (AMP, responsible for pushing abstract auditory representations into awareness) and reduces the likelihood of actually hearing the music in the head. Chewing interferes with the AMP that is recruited for an earworm by re-recruiting it for the act of chewing. It also inhibits the future recruitment of the AMP so new tunes wouldn’t occur.
  6. Engage the auditory system – Your best bet to remove an unwanted musical image is to increase cognitive load (mental work) in the phonological loop ( memory part dealing with sounds) of your working memory. To do that, engage in conversations, listen to the news, read a book, hum a different song, practice pronunciations, etc. Anything that has anything to do with words, sounds, speech, listening, etc. will help.
  7. Induce other emotional states – Completely change your emotional make-up by engaging in a stimulating activity, new emotional states imply changes in how your body reacts and changes how your brain avails resources. Anything that creates strong (but different) emotions can help to kill musical imagery.

Earworm song list

These are the most popular earworm songs as per a 2016 study. Earworms change according to your current exposure to music and modern trends.

  1. “Bad Romance,” Lady Gaga
  2. “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” Kylie Minogue
  3. “Don’t Stop Believing,” Journey
  4. “Somebody That I Used to Know,”
  5. “Moves Like Jagger,” Maroon
  6. “California Gurls,” Katy Perry
  7. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen
  8. “Alejandro,” Lady Gaga
  9. “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga

Which song is your earworm? Leave a comment to share your sticky tunes!


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2 thoughts on “Musical Earworms: Why songs stick in the head & how to dispel them”

  1. 25 years ago I was diagnosed with OCD. Today I’m a professional musician.

    At one point I took a conscious decision that if I had to be obsessed on something I’d be obsessed on something I liked, and chose music.

    I carried music theory books and song writing notepads everywhere.

    I just let thoughts about music (listening, learning, playing, writing and teaching) dominate most of the day.

    Thus, it comes as second nature to me to simply change the tune if there’s an earworm I don’t like.

    It’s what I’ve done in the past to cope with OCD, and has worked.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your story Robert, that’s very interesting! Did you use musical imagery along with the OCD as a creativity slingshot? Did it ever interfere with your musical abilities?

      Reply

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