Earworms - Songs That Just Don't Stop

Robyn Auld
23 January 2012

Robyn Auld Writer August 2, 2008

I wish I could get you out of my head!

Kylie Minogue must have been suffering from an earworm when she released her 2001 hit, Can't Get you out of my Head. Ironically, we couldn't seem to get HER out of our heads! The term earworm, which originates from the German word Ohrwurm, is the common way to express that annoying tune in our brains that just keeps playing over and over, and over...

I wish I could get you out of my head!

Kylie Minogue must have been suffering from an earworm when she released her 2001 hit, Can't Get you out of my Head. Ironically, we couldn't seem to get HER out of our heads!

Most of us LOVE music. In fact researchers have found that music stimulates the same pleasure centre in our brain as does winning the lottery or eating loads of chocolate. Music has been part of almost every culture's history and is appreciated worldwide. It's only a problem when we've just heard enough of that one song and it won't leave us alone!

Did You Know?
Musicians are more likely to experience earworms than non-musically oriented people.

According to earworm specialist James Kellaris at the University of Cincinnati, almost all of us experience the feeling of getting a song stuck in our heads. In a 2001 study he reported that 98-99% of all people have experienced this phenomenon. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be a clear answer as to what causes it to happen. However, there are some clues!

One thing that Dr. Kellaris noticed about the type of song we get stuck in our heads is that they tend to have repetitive beats, lyrics, or melodies. One theory on why they keep playing over and over in your mind is that your brain is searching for the end of the song, but can't fill the gap. In a way, this is like a 'cognitive itch', causing you to scratch the song repeatedly until you think you'll scream!

Did You Know?
Mozart suffered from earworms so badly that if someone played only half a scale on the piano he would run over to finish it — otherwise he would complain of hearing the first half of the scale repetitively in his mind!

Other researchers, including famous psychologist Oliver Sacks, and Canadian Daniel Levitin, suggest that neurochemical reactions may also play a part. According to Levitin, people who are stressed or anxious are often more susceptible to earworms, and calming medication can often help alleviate the frustrating experience. Sacks speculates that earworms may be related to conditions such as epilepsy and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

According to the research of James Kellaris the most common earworms are....

10. It's a small world after all 9. The lion sleeps tonight 8. Whoomp, there it is! 7. YMCA 6. Mission Impossible theme song 5. Kit-Kat candy bar jingle (Gimme a break...) 4. We will rock you 3. Who let the dogs out? 2. Chili's baby back ribs jingle 1. Other! Apparently we all have our own 'favourite' earworm!

It also turns out that the music you listen to during your teens is the stuff that is most likely to stick with you throughout your whole life. So be careful what you listen to, because it must just stay with you forever and ever...and ever!

Tips for getting rid of earworms

1. Listen to other songs — forcing your brain to process new tunes may help. 2. Pass it onto others — sing it aloud and have fun bugging someone else in the process. 3. Listen to the song you have stuck in your head — help you brain learn how to finish the song by listening to it repetitively. 4. Don't stress out — it will pass!

Two new exciting books by the authors in this article have also recently been published:

This is your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

Learn More! Kellaris,James J. (2001), "Identifying Properties of Tunes That Get 'Stuck in Your Head': Toward a Theory of Cognitive Itch." In Susan E. Heckler and Stewart Shapiro, ed.s, Proceedings of the Society for Consumer Psychology Winter 2001 Conference, Scottsdale, AZ, American Psychological Society, pp. 66-67.

Levitin, Daniel J. 2006. This is your brain on music: the science of a human obsession. Penguin Group, New York.

Sacks, Oliver. 2007. Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. Knopf Publishing Group, New York.

Robyn Auld

Robyn has a PhD in Biology and works full time for Let's Talk Science as the Coordinator of Online Volunteer Engagement. She thinks it's a great way to put her love of science and her education to use in a way other than research. Robyn loves talking to people, playing Ultimate and hanging out with her family.



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