Have you ever had a song playing in your mind that you just can’t tune out? The social science term for this is “involuntary musical imagery” (IMI) otherwise known as an “earworm.” In this post, I’ll discuss research about IMI, focusing on data from a study by Victoria Williamson and colleagues tracing the “earworm” phenomenon. I end by discussing some gaps in the research, and I reflect on my experiences with earworms.
Much of our thinking happens without our conscious attention. Involuntary thoughts are always running in the back of our brains. These unconscious thoughts happen spontaneously, but they reflect our prior experiences. So why do earworms exist? It turns out that they serve both a functional and a socio-psychological purpose.
Music Non-Stop When I Close My Eyes
Musical imagery is an introspective phenomenon where our experience of music (a melody or our memory of a song) persists without the stimuli (the song) being present. This imagery can be measured qualitatively, such as by having people record from memory the pitch and rhythm of certain songs. It can also be measured quantitatively, via brain imagery. Brain scans show that neural activity is actually the same whether someone is hearing a song or remembering it.
The involuntary persistence of musical imagery has various names, including “earworm,” “brain worms,” “sticky music,” “cognitive itch” and “stuck song syndrome.” As most of these names suggest, the experience of repetition of music in our memory is subjectively understood to be outside of our control.
Large studies involving over 12,400 people find that 92% of people experience IMI at least once a week, with a third of participants experiencing it at least daily, and a further 26% experiencing earworm more than once daily. Around 26% of people say this happens with new songs, while the rest report that it’s connected to older songs they know well. Other studies suggest that IMI is more likely to happen when we start to think of particular words.
This suggests the phenomenon of earworm may be a recurring part of daily life. But why? The answer is twofold: First, IMI plays a functional role namely entertainment that breaks up the monotony of everyday routine. Second, is the fulfilment of a social-psychological need of completeness. That is, there is a connection between our individual experience of IMI and what’s going on in our personal lives.
Damn That Radio Song!
Williamson’s team initially collected over 2,000 reports on earworms as experienced by BBC listeners. Their sample is skewed towards middle-aged men, with an average age of 38, who are largely in professional occupations. In the second phase of the study, the researchers conducted an online survey of over 1,300 people predominantly living in the UK, USA, Europe and Australia. The researchers focused on a sub-set of these reports (271), which had a better gender balance. These participants had an average age of 36, and the majority were highly educated and had played a musical instrument.
The two datasets show that the most common trigger for earworm was recent exposure to a particular song or tune (around 20-25% of both samples). This refers to being repeatedly exposed to a song. One person talks about having earworm over a children’s song they hear over and over because they have a child. One BBC participant made this humorous comment. It reflects the frustration at having earworm when it’s a song you hate:
My bloody earworm is that bloody George Harrison song you played yesterday. Woke at 4.30 this morning with it going round me head. PLEASE DON’T EVER PLAY IT AGAIN!!
The second-most common reason for earworm was association. That is, being in an environment that involuntarily brings a song to mind. This is most often due to hearing a word that is associated with particular lyrics or being in a situation that evokes a memory that is linked to a song. For example, one person sat down to start rewriting a manuscript. This led them to reminisce about how their laptop was stolen, which is why they’d lost the previous draft of their work. Their earworm was Paperback Writer by The Beatles.
Seeing a person or hearing a sound can also trigger an earworm.
Don’t Dream It’s Over
To a lesser extent, but much more intriguing, is the memory of an event that can lead to an earworm. This is known as “mental time travel.” This can happen when driving down a particular road that triggers a song loop. Feelings of anticipation, will also trigger an earworm, such when as thinking about going somewhere.
In the Williamson team’s study, a minority of people experienced earworm in connection to particular moods. Being surprised or stressed are two common emotional triggers for IMI. Being in a low attention state such as when dreaming or daydreaming, can also trigger a specific type of earworm that is not directly about the environment you’re in, but rather it’s due to the lack of stimuli in our environment. In the study, there was a great comment by one young scientist who thinks of the K’naan song Waving Flag when she’s in the lab doing a “repetitive task that I am familiar with enough to go ‘on autopilot.’”
As we see, earworms are not always about hearing a song. Still, where direct exposure to music is a trigger, there are differences in the type of stimuli that will affect an earworm. The BBC sample were more likely to have an IMI experience in connection to remembering or anticipating a live concert, as well as watching videos on YouTube. The survey sample were more likely to be triggered by hearing something on the radio or in another private setting, like at home or at a party.
Another interesting way of “catching” earworm is via contagion. This happens less often, but it occurs when people hear someone else humming or singing a tune. Hearing music in a public place, like at a gym, or on a ringtone, can also trigger earworms.
Over And Over Again
Obvious limitations to Williamson’s team study relate to the subjective measure of IMI and the demographics of two sample groups. Different socio-economic variables are likely to augment how earworms manifest for different sub-groups.
Take for example culture. Being of Latin background and growing up around a lot of music and dancing, and having had most of my social life revolving around dancing, my “positive” earworms are connected to songs I love dancing to. Hearing a word that makes me think of a song I danced at a party or in a club will trigger a massive earworm!
My earworms are also connected to learning experiences, much of which are influenced by word associations. I get earworms when I read, whether it’s a line in a book or an paragraph in a blog post.
My experience of learning to speak English is strongly connected to listening to particular songs. Anything that evokes these early English-language songs I first heard will trigger earworms for me on multiple levels: word association, mood and environment (that is, these earworms are more likely to happen when I’m with my family and feeling nostalgic). These earworms represent “time travel” for me and trigger other memories, so they are more profound and complex than when I get an annoying song stuck in my head.
Above, I’ve differentiated between “positive” and “negative” (that is, annoying) earworms. Both happen spontaneously but some earworms are welcome as they can cheer you up, while others are a hindrance. The fact that earworms transport us to another time and place suggests they have a connection to wellbeing, identity and socialisation.
It’d be great to see more research done on the mental health benefits and sociability of earworms, such as how they help us bond with other people. I’d also be keen to read more on cross-cultural comparisons of earworms.
Earworms are not simply some frivolous mind loop. They are linked with our memories and how we think of ourselves in relation to others, and so for this reason, IMI research may help us understand other emotive, cognitive and socialisation processes.
Read the Williamson team study (behind a paywall): http://goo.gl/uUeAqd
All of the sub-titles I’ve used in this post are lyrics or titles to songs that I’ve experienced as earworms. Can you work out who sang these songs?
This post was first published on Google+.
15 thoughts on “Earworms: How and Why Music Gets Stuck in Your Head”
Interesting post.. I get earworms fairly regularly. Unfortunately for me they are almost always the kind of tunes I don’t like! Usually they tend to be some awful pop tune by one of the many boy or girl bands that tend to clog up the airwaves here in the UK! Hardly ever are they tunes I like.. Although I tend to like electronic dance music and this generally does not have lyrics as part of the music, do earworms tend to be tunes with lyrics in?
This is such a cool post.. I finally know why I can’t get that tune outta my head! I sometimes have to stop doing whatever it is that I’m doing, usually something important, to let that tune finish which is replaced by another tune!! Its still a relief to know I’m not going completely crazy 😛
I’ve found that giving someone else the song to be stuck in their head(contagious) is a sure fire way to get it out of mine. Sometimes I will leave the house with the express purpose of giving this song to someone else.
Tecno Tecnonaut I hate this too! Reading your comment, I’m reminded of a documentary featuring the composer of Britney Spear’s song, Baby One More Time. He spoke with relish about how he knew the instant pop formula for a catchy tune that will get stuck in people’s heads. (Earworm sorcery!) If you’re interested, I believe the series was Walk on By: The Story of Popular Song. It covers many genres, with a focus on the commercialisation of “hit” formulas. (Earworm factories!)
To answer your question, no, songs don’t have to have lyrics to be earworms! Lyrics are more likely to trigger an earworm, but it’s different for different people. Musicians can get an earworm just for a note or a specific melody. It would make sense if you’re listening mostly to dance music that your earworms might feature a specific beat!
Ahmed Faraaz Patel This happens to me all the time! I’m a play-it-on-repeat bandit: I just replay songs over and over to get rid of my earworms, so much so that I end up hating a song I love and can’t listen to it for a couple of months.
Eli Tripps This is hilarious! You’re an earworm genius. I may need to try this reverse contagion method on unwitting subjects. [Evil laughter earworms in the background]
Word association earworm – thanks for sharing Skerdilajd Truja! Tearjerker is a great song to have stuck in your head, by the way.
I’m a professional choral director, and I’m interested in the relationship between IMI and a musician’s capability to retain a pitch during rehearsal or performance. It seems to me that pitch retention is a subconscious activity, also… although it is a skill that a vocalist or chorister is keen to possess. In that way, it differs from IMI. I wonder if functional MRI studies might indicate what area or areas of the brain contribute to pitch retention. I assume that the Williamson study was unable to use fMRI as a tool in studying earworm phenomena. Thanks for your great article!
Zuleyka Zevallos that’s interesting that earworms can just be music. Like I say all my earworms tend to be pop tunes. I listen to a lot of techno and DJ it as well so you would think that I would have a lot of loop based earworms but I don’t, still that’s individual differences I guess. Could it be that with a composer the repetitive earworm could be to do with them trying to create a new piece of music and its the minds way of trying out a new melody or something? That’s interesting about Eli Tripps observation – if I tell my partner I’ve had an earworm playing all day she does not want to know what it is as quite often it then becomes an earworm for her! Although unlike Eli it does not stop my earworm from playing! She said it’s like when someone yawns and then you end up yawning. I shall locate that series you suggested as it sounds interesting 🙂
Wow, your work as a choral director seems very interesting Deb Thurston! This is a great question. You’re right IMI and pitch memory are not the same, but many researchers see that they’re connected, including the study I wrote about. This particular study didn’t use fMRI because they were specifically interested in subjective experiences of earworms. But you’re in luck! Other studies have looked at this very thing you’re interested in. Koelsch and colleagues didn’t look at earworms per se, but they did use brain imaging to see how pitch and verbal words worked in the memory. It turns out that tonal and verbal musical information are not stored or recalled in different parts of the brain. Instead, the neural networks for pitch and lyrics overlap. The study is behind a paywall: http://goo.gl/g4qdMp
Daniel Levitin sheds light on this connection between pitch and lyrics. One of his studies looked at memory function of musical pitch. He finds that a subgroup of people can recreate memories of pitch perfectly every time (12% of the sample of 46 undergrad psych students). A further 40% of people can recall pitch perfectly at least once. The study measured popular music, though, which would be different than the people you work with who are professional musicians. Still, I think you’d enjoy this study. Levitin’s interest is to unearth why only a small minority of people can retain such perfect pitch memory. It seems that they are recreating visual images form auditory experiences that support their memory retention. Levitin also theorises that with better musical training, more people might be taught to visualise musical pitch memory in the same way. This makes me wonder whether visualising techniques might enhance what you’re interested in? This study is free to read from the author’s website: http://goo.gl/AGn2qz
Tecno Tecnonaut There seems to be a connection between earworms and the way our memories works. Even though you love techno music and you DJ, your memory may be more attuned to word associations. I’m clear that words help my memory – writing things down, especially by hand, will help me remember that information better. I remember where on the page I write something (left or right hand side, top, middle or bottom). This is about how I learned to read; and the fact that I’ve read and written a lot from a young age. So it’s no surprise that my earworms follow this logic. Perhaps for you words may trigger your long term memory also? Perhaps it’s not the words per se, but the mental image that the words create in your memory – whether it’s about emotion, or remembering places or people, or so on. Memories are fascinating. There is still so much more to learn about how the brain and how our memories work! It’s exciting.
That’s funny your girlfriend likens earworm contagions to yawns! I catch earworms from people I’m close to, or again if it’s something I’ve read. Like if someone writes about, or tells me about, why they love a song, it’s likely to get stuck in my head a day or so later. So I get empathetic earworms! This follows my research interests too – I’m a qualitative researcher by training. Empathy is central to creating rapport with interview participants, and it helps us become familiar with the data, as well as being able to remember large chunks of text during the analysis and write up.
Zuleyka Zevallos You may well be right about my memory being more attuned to word associations. I do tend to only need to have a small cue to recall knowledge – those cues could be a related word or term or even noises. I often read on the bus and if I’m on a bus without a book and I hear a noise that the bus might make then I recall what I was reading when I last heard that noise – quite often the particular bit of the book I was reading. This did come in handy when I did my Psychology degree as I could recall a lot of information just by reading a term or a researchers name. I agree that there must be a relationship between how memory functions and the processes behind earworms, somehow the earworm is recalled from our musical knowledge base. The interesting part is that they cam seemingly just happen without any known stimulus. The empathy aspect in how earworms work is interesting too, empathic relationships between people are fascinating and a powerful driver in social functioning. The brain and its functioning is indeed a fascinating area of research, I always enjoyed the lectures we had on working and long term memory. My dissertation investigated part of the process involved in how we categorise groups of knowledge. Ah, I miss those days at university..
Thanks for sharing the topic of your thesis Tecno Tecnonaut. Very interesting that small sounds will trigger your memories!
When I get an earworm, if it’s a song I know and like I can usually just sing (sometimes silently) all the words to it, and then move on to a different song. Usually the second song doesn’t stick as an earworm.
Possibly even worse than earworms of songs I hate is when I get stuck with a fragment of a song I’ve overheard a number of times, but I can’t quite remember (or never knew) what song it is. Fragment being, say, half of the chorus, … or just the “Hey! Ho!” part 🙂 … So instead of just dismissing it by overwriting with another song, I end up trying to figure out what the heck it is.
Doug Landauer That’s really interesting! I know what you mean – it’s painful to get an earworm when you don’t know the lyrics. This happened to me recently, where I can only remember one fragmented line but I don’t know the song. I know it’s about something I read or watched recently but I was getting frazzled over trying to figure out what it was!
It seems from the comments here that there’s another area to explore, which is the diverse ways people manage their earworms and why this works for them. I see this is connected to: 1) how and why you caught the earworm in the first place; 2) how your memory works. Maybe you have a stronger problem-solving memory and the earworms that stick around are like mental puzzles you can’t quite solve.
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