Biology

Why Is That Song Stuck In Your Head and What Can You Do About It?

You know the experience. You hear a song on the radio or remember a catchy tune and it enters into an endless loop in your head. Mentally, the song plays over and over, repeating itself despite every effort on your part to stop thinking about it. The harder you try, it only goes to demonstrate the utter futility of your efforts. We refer, of course, to the dreaded “earworm.” What is it? What causes it? Most importantly, how can you shut it off?

I was begging for the brush of Death's merciful hand.
Peter Capaldi, as Doctor Who, reacting to having a two-week earworm as a result of listening to Peter Andre’s “Mysterious Girl.” (click on image for audio)

If you have ever experienced an earworm, you are not alone. As much as 98% of the western world has experienced the phenomenon. For most of us, it is, at best, a passing irritation. For up to one-third of the population, however, it is so invasive that it disrupts ordinary life.

In the Doctor Who episode “Under the Lake,” the Doctor reveals that even 2,000-year-old Time Lords are prone to the condition. He said he dismantled his radio “because whatever song I heard first thing in the morning I was stuck with. Two weeks of ‘Mysterious Girl’ by Peter Andre. I was begging for the brush of Death’s merciful hand.”

Who Experiences Earworms?

Hopefully, your experience with a catchy, repetitive song was not as severe as the Doctor’s. Even so, the earworm experience can be unsettling. In their study “Earworms (stuck song syndrome): towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts” published in the British Journal of Psychology, C. Philip Beaman and Tim I. Williams found that people who consider music to be important to them reported experiencing earworms of longer duration and greater difficulty to control than the rest of the public. Others who are prone to susceptibility include people with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, those who are frequently anxious, self-conscious, and people who are typically open to new experiences.

What Causes Them?

Music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski concluded that fast and simple songs are more likely to become earworms. Additionally, songs with unique intervals between notes tended to get stuck in an endless mental cycle. Between 2010 and 2013, “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” (ironically) by Kylie Minogue, and “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey were reported as common contributors to the malady.

For a song to mutate from a pleasant tune to a distracting loop, it must trigger multiple centers of your brain. The mental processes of emotion, spontaneity, perception, and memory simultaneously embrace the melody. When you are feeling good, nostalgic, dreamy, or stressed, your brain is more likely to grab hold of a thought (musical or otherwise) and cling to it. To do so, it pulls in the other centers of your thought processes. In doing so, it is equivalent to pushing “auto-repeat” on a song.

Should I Worry About My Earworm?

“The Song That Never Ends” from Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. WARNING: This is a guaranteed earworm!

Although the experience can be irritating and unnerving, there may be a psychological value to earworms. The “spontaneity” aspect of the brain’s activities — in other words, the mind’s ability to wander and think about things other than the task immediately at hand — is vital to creativity and clear thinking. Earworms may be one way the brain makes sure that this aspect of its job is fully engaged.

That’s not to say that all cases of earworms are helpful. Some, in fact, are an indication of a significant problem. Those who experience earworms at a debilitating level may also be suffering from severe forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychotic syndromes, migraine headaches, epilepsy, or palinacousis (hearing a sound long after it has ended). Earworms that last longer than 24 hours could also be an indication of brain cancer or stroke. If, like Doctor Who, your earworm has you wishing for the touch of Death’s merciful hand, you should consult a physician.

How Can I Get Rid of the Pesky Thing?

The two most common ways of getting rid of an earworm are completion and substitution.

Completion refers to the fact that most earworms are incomplete portions of a song. Your brain may keep revisiting the song because it knows that it has not run its course. If that is the case, try listening to the song all the way through or mentally playing the song in your head from beginning to end. Once you get to the end, focus on the silence, telling yourself that it is over.

Substitution is the process of replacing your earworm with another catchy tune in the hope that the latter will cancel the former. Common songs to use for this include “I’m a Little Teapot,” “Happy Birthday,” or “The Entertainer.” Listen to the substitution song or play mentally whenever and as long as the earworm afflicts you. The sooner you start this process, the better.

Many people experience relief by using the completion and substitution methods back-to-back. In other words, play out the pesky tune to completion, take a moment of focusing on the silence that marks the end of it, and then launch into the substitution song until the earworm is exorcised.

Other approaches to the problem include chewing gum or continually telling yourself “It is normal to have earworms.”

In extreme cases, earworms can be treated with antidepressants and therapy.

The takeaway from all of this is that there’s nothing weird about having an earworm. The truly weird person would be one who never experienced the phenomenon. If you get one and you want to get rid of it, try the techniques described above. If they don’t work, don’t stress; earworms rarely last longer than 24 hours. If it won’t go away, or if the experience is particularly unsettling for you, seek the help of a medical professional.

Oh… and you probably shouldn’t listen to “The Song That Never Ends” in the video above. Maybe we should have said that sooner.


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