BBC Future column: earworms

From a couple of weeks ago, my column from BBC Future, about everyday brain quirks (as I’ve mentioned previously). Thanks to Maria Panagiotidi for help with this one.

“Earworms”, some people call them. Songs that get stuck in your head and go round and round, sometimes for days, sometimes for months. For no apparent reason you cannot help yourself from humming or singing a tune by Lady Gaga or Coldplay, or horror upon horrors, the latest American Idol reject.

To a psychologist – or at least to this psychologist – the most interesting thing about earworms is that they show a part of our mind that is clearly outside of our control. Earworms arrive without permission and refuse to leave when we tell them to. They are parasites, living in a part of our minds that rehearses sounds.

We all get these musical memories, and people appear to have different ones, according to a team at Goldsmiths University in London, who collected a database of over 5,000 earworms. True, the songs that we get stuck with tend to be simple and repetitive, but it seems we are not all singing the same number one song at the same time.

Lost in music

Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his book Musicophilia that earworms are a clear sign of “the overwhelming, and at times, helpless, sensitivity of our brains to music”. Music is defined by repetition, just like earworms, and this might make earworms so hard to shake – they are musical memories that loop, say a particular verse or a hook, forever repeating rather than running to completion. Some people report that singing an earworm to the end can help get rid of it (others report in frustration that this does not work at all).

As well as containing repetition, music is also unusual among the things we regularly encounter for being so similar each time we hear it. Fences are visually repetitive, for example, but each time you see the same fence you will look at it from a different angle, or in different light. Put a song on your stereo and the sound comes out virtually identical each time. Remembering is powerfully affected by repetition, so maybe the similarity of music engraves deep grooves in our mind. Grooves in which earworms can thrive.

Another fact about earworms is that they often seem to have something interesting or usual about them. Although they will often be simple and repetitive bits of music, tunes that become earworms have a little twist or peculiarity, something that makes them “catchy”, and perhaps this is a clue as to why they can take hold in our memory system. If there was nothing unique about them they would be swamped by all the other memories that sound similar too.

Slave to the rhythm

If you have got a particularly persistent earworm you can suffer an attack of it merely by someone mentioning the tune, without having to hear it. This proves that earworms are a phenomenon of long-term memory, rather than merely being a temporary “after-image” in sound.

But this is not the whole story. Human memory researchers have identified so called “slave systems” in our short-term memory, components of the mind which capture sights and sounds, keeping them alive for a short time while we focus on them.

One slave system is the “mind’s eye”, capturing visual information, another is the “inner ear”, the part we use for remembering phone numbers, for instance. It is this second part that seems to get infected with earworms. Rather than rehearse our plans for the day, idle thoughts, or lists of things to remember, the inner ear gets stuck on a few short bars of music or a couple of phrases from a song. A part of us that we normally do not have to think about, that should just do what we ask, has been turned against us, tormenting us with a jukebox request that we never asked for.

That our minds are not a unity is one of the basic insights of modern psychology – it is the story Dr Freud was telling, and, although it differs on many of the details, modern cognitive neuroscience says a similar thing. The sense of our selves is not the only thing going on in our minds, psychology says. The mind is an inner world which we do not have complete knowledge of, or have control over.

Mind games

Fortunately psychology can provide some vital intelligence on how to deal with an unruly mind. Consider the famous “don’t think of a white bear” problem, which as it implies involves trying not to think about white bears. Try this yourself, or you can set it as a challenge for a loved one you would like to torment. This problem is a paradox: by trying not to think of a thing you constantly have to be checking if you are still thinking of it – re-invoking precisely the thing you are trying not to think of.

The general solution for the white bear problem is to do something else, to avoid both thinking of the white bear and not thinking of the white bear. For earworms, the solution may be the same. Our inner ear, a vital part of our cognitive machinery for remembering and rehearsing sounds, has become infected with an earworm. This is a part of ourselves which is not under our control, so just sending in instructions to “shut up” is unlikely to be of much help (and has been shown to make it worse). Much better is to employ the inner ear in another task, preferably something incompatible with rehearsing the earworm.

If earworms survive because of their peculiarity, the hook that makes them catch, then my prediction for ridding yourself of an earworm is to sing songs that are similar. If your mind is poisoned by Brittany Spears’ Toxic, for instance, then try singing Kylie Minogue’s appropriately titled Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. By my theory this will erode the uniqueness of the memory habitat that lets the earworm survive. Let me know if it works!

Link: My columns at BBC Future
Link: UK readers – you’ll have to try it via here

20 Comments

  1. Raine Carosin
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    …as usual, this brought to mind the schizophrenic problem of “uninvited thoughts”… it’s such a similar phenomenon… at least with a song, one is able to recognise it as “Britney” or “Jodie”, but with a “thought”, it can be anyone, and the confusion that ensues is usually because of the confusion as to “Who is it?”… when there is no answer, the person becomes frustrated… If you want to imagine this horrible moment in a schizo’s life, then when you have an “earworm”, try to imagine that you don’t know who or where it is coming from… that’s the horror of the schizo’s inner mind, and the fear of asking some one to help them in the initial stages of “going mad” because they think they are “going mad” and that everybody can see it… this is only from my own personal experiences… I figured that my “talking earworms” were the real people around me and in the world, and in Heaven and from Hell, and God Himself… It was very weird, and I still suffer with them, but with medication and a strong field of people whom I can trust, I don’t fall into the eventual depression and “die”… Well, guess that’s enough from my two cents… back to the grindstone… Best to all and thanks for a great site… By the way, there’s a new blog at SOUTH AFRICAN WEATHER AND DISASTER INFORMATION SERVICE… It’s called THE MAD SCIENTIST… Yes, I joined… LOL!!!!

  2. Daniel A.
    Posted April 30, 2012 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    20 years ago I was told of an antidote earworm song. A song you could sing to yourself and it would chase out earworms, but the antidote song would not get stuck and instead be forgotten.
    It worked.
    Once.
    Sadly, I can’t recall the song.

    • Chris
      Posted May 2, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      I’ve been told that Disney’s “It’s a Small World” does that. However, I find that song too annoying to risk trying it.

    • Claire
      Posted May 3, 2012 at 4:01 am | Permalink

      The theme song for the muppets. No idea why it works but it does!

  3. Posted April 30, 2012 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Thank you for infecting me with at least half a dozen earworms in the space of one blog post!

  4. Tom H
    Posted April 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I get insomnia from time to time and when I’m really sleep deprived I get earworms but also repetitive mental processes, sometimes maths equations or other totally pointless circular thoughts. Totally out of my control and for what seems like hours.

  5. Posted May 1, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I hope nobody figures out the secret to creating an earworm. Can you imagine what would happen? Advertisers, special interest groups, governments, etc., would be creating them so our brains would endlessly repeat their propaganda. It would be like the conditioning in “Brave New World.”

  6. Sam
    Posted May 1, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Funny, I was thinking of this phenomenon only yesterday.

    I used to get what they call earworms but haven’t had them since a small stroke seven years ago.

    The stroke fried my working and short term memories. They’re improved now with a lot of work and assistive tech.

    But this research could explain why the earworms never came back – just not enough functionality for the little blighters!

    • John A
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:02 am | Permalink

      It’s the opposite for me, I have uncontrollable earworms since I had a stroke a few months ago. It’s driving me absolutely nuts. Even during serious moments, like hearing about my uncle dyeing,I still have music playing in my head! I’m hoping there is a medication that will work for me. Pray for me please…..

  7. desibitch
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    @Daniel A – there was a crowdsourced article (in the BBC magazine) that suggested Tina Turner’s Simply the Best :D Here it is: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17302237

  8. sonologue
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    @Daniel A – there was a crowdsourced article (in the BBC magazine) that suggested Tina Turner’s Simply the Best :D Here it is: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17302237

  9. ubi dubium
    Posted May 7, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    There’s a website called “unhearit.com” that gets rid of earworms by replacing them with other equally-catchy songs. Works pretty well, even if it does give you a brand-new earworm.

    “It’s a Small World” is definitely the worst earworm of all time, followed closely by the theme to Disney’s Electrical Parade.

  10. A.currell
    Posted May 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I find my earworms are usually songs that I don’t know part of the lyrics to; I get stuck on the verse right before the ‘blahblahblah’ part and it knocks me right back to the beginning, over and over. Looking up the lyrics helps-sometimes.

  11. DRK
    Posted May 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I deal with earworms by trying to simultaneously remember Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. Running both in my mind at once usually knocks out the earworm after a try or two. Although there was this one Stevie Nicks song….no, no don’t think of it….arrgh!

    • ubi dubium
      Posted May 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      One of the songs I’ve heard on “unhearit” was the Andy Griffith Show theme song played at the same time as Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies”. They went together amazingly well, and that’s been a good one to drive out other earworms. Of course, now that one’s running through my head! AARRRRGH!

  12. Joss
    Posted May 14, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    The oddest ones are when you wake up with something you haven’t heard for decades going round and round.

    I had a nursery rhyme about a ‘little nut tree’ the other day – good job I’m not in psychoanalysis…

    Seriously though – those really old songs and nursery rhymes that resurface for the first time in years or decades – really odd.

  13. Posted May 20, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ve found such cure: shorten the stucked sentence. Shorten and repeat till one word left. Something inside will loose any interest to annoy further more.

  14. tomstafford
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Reader GM from Canada writes:

    Randy Bachman, of Guess Who fame, has a weekly radio program on the CBC called Vinyl Tap. He did a show on earworms in 2010. It’s been a long-lasting theme, with people still sending in suggestions, years later.

    http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/Radio/1447825254/ID=1628285205

  15. John A
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    Earworms are driving me absolutely insane, I’m about to check myself into the pshyc ward! Is there a medication for this? anyone?

    • Big Al60
      Posted December 18, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      Well if it’s any consolation – and I don’t think it will be – I’ve been suffering with this particular problem for about 43 years (I’m now 63!).
      I’ve been to Hell and back more times than I can count, and I’ve tried everything I can think of over the course of these years. Medication is very hit and miss and pretty much comes down to taking anti-depressants; personally I would advise against this. In my experience the unpleasant side effects invariably outweigh the small benefits from taking these very potent drugs (Prozac, Citalopram, etc).
      I tried hypnotherapy about 20 years ago with very limited success but I’ve decided to try this again in the hopes that things have moved on over the years.
      There really is no known cure for this odd condition of the mind and, of course, what works for some will not work for others.
      I wouldn’t bother with pyschotherapy of any sort as the treatment often comes down to telling you to get a grip on yourself – which isn’t really useful…
      I wish you all well


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