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Banishing the earworm

Wednesday, January 9, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

EarwormRemember the earworm? It’s “a song or melody that keeps repeating in one’s mind”. Most commonly referenced in everyday situations as “I can’t make this song stop playing over and over again in my head!” In 2010, we wrote about a case whose narrative was reduced to a country-western song. Fortunately for us, we worked defense on that case and so our task was to subtly turn up the volume. But, we guessed (in that blog post) at some ways to banish the earworm if we had been on the plaintiff side. And now, we have new research on earworm eradication!

First, the researchers identify some common beliefs about song earworms. As a public service we pass them along so that they will be stuck in your head.

Annoying music is not really more likely to turn into an earworm. More often earworms are songs you actually like and hearing them can result in an earworm occurring.

Particular music characteristics such as simplicity or repetitiveness does not increase chances of the song becoming an earworm. If this were the case, we would often share earworms (and end up with the same songs stuck in our heads). Song earworms tend to be highly individual and not universally shared.

Here is the truth (at least for now) on what causes earworms in the form of a repetitious song:

Musical training does make you more prone to earworms as does being someone for whom music is important or someone who listens to music throughout the day. People in these groups are exposed to more music and thus have a higher chance of song earworms.

Earworms tend to be snippets of a song and not the entire song. Some researchers say it is possible the snippet of song remains ‘stuck’ in your brain due to a lack of completion which your brain returns to in an attempt to close that loop. If that is accurate, it’s possible that listening to the entire song can clear the earworm for you. And it’s possible that listening to the entire song will only make it worse since, according to this research, hearing a song can trigger earworm recurrence!

Earworms tend to recur when you experience a song snippet in your head and then engage in an either engrossing or mindless task. So avoid sudoku and daily activities that don’t demand much of you when you have recently had an earworm. (This could be a research-based rationale for why you should not empty the dishwasher.)

It’s a fun study. But unfortunately this study has nothing to add to our recommendations of how to mitigate the earworm in your case narrative gone sudsy, country-western song. For that, you’ll just have to visit our original post on what to do, when and if that earworm happens. Almost every case story contains an “earworm fact” or two when told compellingly. The challenge is to know how to amplify, diminish, or avoid the musical association.

Hyman, I., Burland, N., Duskin, H., Cook, M., Roy, C., McGrath, J., & Roundhill, R. (2012). Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2897


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