You probably didn’t realise this, but the very fact you’re a singer and interested in music, makes you more susceptible to ear worms than the general population.
What is an ear worm?
An ear worm is a fragment of a song that seems to get stuck in your head and won’t go away. Symptoms can include repeatedly singing, humming or tapping, and even walking down the street to the beat of a song. At first, it can start out as a pleasant experience but can lead to frustration if a person feels the song is consuming too much of their attention or when others around you start complaining about your sudden obsession.
The term earworm came to us in the 1970s as a translation of the German word Ohrwurm, but the phenomenon of getting a song stuck in your head is centuries old and some ancient references call it the “piper’s maggot”. To study the phenomenon, scientists use the term Involuntary Music Imagery (INMI) because earworms are linked to other types of involuntary thoughts.
How common are ear worms?
Ear worms are incredibly common. In one psychological study that surveyed 3000 Finnish people, 90% reported experiencing this problem on a weekly basis. They can happen when your mind isn’t working very hard and even when you’re dreaming. Some people wake up with a song stuck in their head.
It is not always a bad thing. Around 75% of people who report having earworms actually like the song in their heads. The annoying songs don’t occur as much as we think, but we tend to remember them more because they cause us grief and experiences that are more stressful are more likely to stick in your memory.
What causes ear worms?
What causes a song to go around in your head is difficult to answer and the types of songs that worm their way into your head differ among people. However, there are some common features. Songs with lyrics tend to stick more so than instrumental music. Also, live music is more likely to trigger your internal jukebox than recorded music.
Sometimes, particular features of a song (such as the rhythm, words or melody) seem to grab us, and other times non-musical factors are responsible (such as the popularity of an artist, radio play, and your previous experience of the song). People who actively study, rehearse or listen to music are likely to report more experiences of an earworm because they are more interested in music and pay closer attention to it.
Repeated or recent exposure are big factors for triggering that earworm. For example, a song you have heard recently is more likely to become an earworm. Songs that get played repeatedly around holiday times, such as Christmas carols, can quickly work their way into your head. Other times, certain factors can trigger your memory of a song, such as seeing a word that reminds you of a song, hearing a few notes from a song, or feeling an emotion previously associated with a song. Another person’s earworm can also get stuck in your head.
Ear worm warning - The Most Catchy Songs
I’m a big fan of the television series, Seinfeld. In the hilarious Season 2, Episode 3, George enters Jerry’s apartment singing a phrase of “Master of the House” from the musical Les Miserables. He then complains that the song has been stuck in his head for an entire week to the point that it is taking over his life and driving him crazy. By the end of the episode, the problem has spread beyond George with the whole cast struggling to get the song out of their heads.
Are there any songs you should avoid? Psychologists have studied hundreds of songs looking for common features of the earworms. Which songs become your earworm depends a lot on your musical tastes, but they tend to be songs that you like and that you listen to more than others.
However, if you feel like torturing yourself, you might try these songs that are commonly reported to be serial offenders. Beware, sometimes just the mention of these songs is enough to make you start singing them in your head:
- Lady Gaga – in one scientific study, three of Gaga’s songs were found to be a problem, Bad Romance, Alejandro and Poker Face
- Kylie Minogue – Can’t Get You Out of My Head. Appropriately named, those 8 notes in the chorus on the word “la” that are incredibly infectious!
- Journey – Don’t Stop Believing Those infectious 5 syllables in the chorus are often the only words people remember
- Katie Perry’s California Gurls has a combination of 4 chords that repeat throughout the whole song and quickly get lodged in the brain
Reported by some to be the most annoying earworms of all time, are
- The Christmas carol Jingle Bells, and
- Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up
How to get rid of ear worms
Tip #1 - Distraction
Tip #2 - Engagememt
Tip #3 - Puzzles
Tip #4 - Chewing
The most bizarre cure for ear worms was proposed by psychologists at the University of Reading. Their 2015 study suggested that chewing gum can potentially rid of your brain of a stuck song by interfering with the process that your brain is using to the play the song.
We live in a world where recorded music is everywhere. It is played in elevators, shopping centres, on our phones, in movies. It’s no wonder that songs get stuck in our heads when we hear them constantly.
It’s also possible that our brains are hard-wired to remember songs on purpose. Oral traditions go back a long way in human history and in earlier times, people used songs and stories to remember things on purpose. The only way to truly ensure you never get an ear worm is to live in a world where you expose yourself to as little music as possible, but then who wants to do that?