An earworm is a melody that arises spontaneously in the mind, perhaps after having heard it only once, and gets “stuck” in the head for hours or days. It is also called brainworm, catchy music, repetition of musical images, involuntary musical imagery and stuck song syndrome. We may come to feel that the tune is driving us crazy and hinders well-structured thinking and complicates concentration, although it usually disappears as unconsciously as it came in.
Most earworms are excerpts from familiar and recently heard songs and tend to be melodically and rhythmically simple 1. In most cases, they are only a fragment of the composition, the chorus or other piece, usually 15 to 30 seconds, and not the entire song. Music and lyrics are often linked, and songs with lyrics account for 73.7% of earworms, jingles and ads are 18.6% while instrumental music accounts for only 7.7% of cases.
Women and men experience the phenomenon with equal frequency, but earworms tend to last longer in women and irritate them more. Some people are more susceptible to earworms than others, including musicians and people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but almost all of us (about 98% of the population) have had a song stuck in our heads at one time or another. In survey-based studies, most of the people surveyed reported that they had had earworms, that it was not an unpleasant experience, and in some cases, it was even rated positively. However, involuntary musical memories are considered the most intrusive of the usual unwanted cognitions and are interesting because they may be a form of sound memory analogous to involuntary autobiographical or semantic memories that, in a few people, their continued repetition affects quality of life.
Researchers think that in an earworm the neural circuits are activated in a repetitive loop and “play” that melody over and over again against the wishes of the unfortunate “owner”. It does not affect everyone equally: in a test measuring mental control, volunteers who scored higher on this issue had shorter-lasting earworms. The conditions of the moment may also affect the presence and evolution of earworms since, in fact, they are triggered not only by hearing a song, but other types of brain activity such as memory, mood, stress and even boredom are also involved.
Earworms also have a footprint in the history of literature. The first mention of the phenomenon has been located in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845) where he wrote:
It is very common for us to be disturbed by the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the blast of some ordinary song, or of some unimpressive outburst of an opera. Nor will we feel less tormented if the song itself is good, or the air of the opera is meritorious.
Mark Twain also commented on earworms in his 1876 story “A Literary Nightmare” (also known as “Punch, Brothers, Punch”) is about a tinkling sound heard in the head that one can only get rid of by transferring it to someone else. It has also appeared in a science fiction story by Arthur C. Clarke, in an episode of Seinfeld, and even SpongeBob had an earworm, although in this case it was a physical creature that entered the cartoon’s head upon hearing a catchy song.
A particularly interesting question about these repetitions is how to get rid of them. It is part of a broader perspective: how mind control is achieved, how unwanted images and memories can be suppressed, and what are the mechanisms involved in excluding some ideas and memories from consciousness. As far as science can tell, there is no reliable “cure” for earworms. That does not mean, however, that there are not some successful approaches to eliminating them and regaining focus (1):
The first strategy is to identify the enemy. Usually, we just have a short melody or choral lines playing over and over in our brain and we concentrate more on it if we can’t put a name to it. For some people, to get rid of earworm the best solution is to listen to that song from beginning to end, but you have to identify which song it is. To do this, you can ask a friend or use digital tools like Shazam or Soundhound. Then, you can try to find the complete musical composition on YouTube, Spotify or another similar application and listen to it.
A second strategy is to activate the auditory system to get rid of unwanted auditory images. This can be done using specific sensory stimuli, such as counting, whistling another tune, or subvocalizations.
A third method is to try to replace the earworm with another song. In this world full of digital offerings, there are apps like Earworm and Unhearit that do just that: play a catchy, popular song – the typical characteristics of earworms – that do the “using one nail to drive out another nail” trick.
A fourth method is to sing a familiar song very slowly. In the Anglo-Saxon world, they recommend God Save the Queen, but it is not an appropriate choice for other populations and on top of that some national anthems have no lyrics, but surely we all have some candidate song, catchy and lively.
The fifth and probably most used method is to distract from that hateful composition. For some people, all that is needed is to wish for it, that is, to think of something else. For others, not so willing, an aid is needed. An example is to keep a rubber band on your wrist by slapping it. It probably recruits new sensory components, a slight pain… but other options are to check your Twitter account, go for a walk, play chess on the internet, … anything that involves a change of activity and gets the brain out of the earworm in your mind.
The sixth strategy, in cases where quality of life is affected, is medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder. These medications have been shown to be able to minimize the negative effects of an earworm.
The latest and most recent proposal so far is chewing gum 2. This will load the motor programs of our mouth joint and do the job. Beaman and colleagues at the University of Reading (UK) showed that chewing gum reduces both the number of voluntary musical thoughts and the number of unwanted involuntary musical thoughts. It is in accordance with previous results showing that chewing gum affects voluntary processes such as verbal memory recall, interpretation of ambiguous auditory imagery, and scanning of familiar melodies. They also showed that chewing gum interferes with the experience of “hearing” the song and confirmed that the reduction in earworms when chewing gum was not a consequence of a general attentional demand or dual task.
Eliminating a horrible song from your head is not an exact science. Each of us has to find which method works best. One possible risk is that an earworm may somehow “revive” once attempts to suppress it have ceased, a nightmare even if it’s not a real creature that enters your head, like poor SpongeBob.
This is an updated version of Earworms and chewing gum (2015)