Earworms: Why That Song Gets Stuck In Your Head

Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London are collecting earworms — songs or bits of melody that get stuck in your head. What are yours? i i

hide captionResearchers at Goldsmiths, University of London are collecting earworms — songs or bits of melody that get stuck in your head. What are yours?

iStockphoto.com
Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London are collecting earworms — songs or bits of melody that get stuck in your head. What are yours?

Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London are collecting earworms — songs or bits of melody that get stuck in your head. What are yours?

iStockphoto.com

Chances are, you've fallen victim to earworms — pesky songs or melodies that get stuck in your head and just won't get out.

Research suggests that there may be psychological reasons why some songs are more likely to stick, including memory triggers, emotional states and even stress. Some researchers hope to better understand why this happens and figure out what, if anything, music memory can teach psychologists about how to treat patients dealing with memory loss.

NPR's John Donvan speaks with psychologist Vicky Williamson about collecting earworms, the reasons some songs get stuck in our heads and the implications for understanding human memory.


Interview Highlights

On why earworms are interesting for researchers

"It's an interesting everyday phenomenon. It happens to at least 90 percent of people once a week, [they] get a tune stuck in their head. And it's a very effortless form of memory, so we're not even trying, and this music comes into our head and repeats. And it's very often very veridical, meaning it's a very good representation of the original tune that we're remembering.

"So my big hope is that that can tell us something about the automaticity of musical memory and its power as a tool for learning. So imagine if we could recall facts that we wanted as easily as we can bring new ones to mind without even trying."

On why childhood songs stick with us

"Simplicity is one of the elements that we're looking into. It does seem that the majority of the earworms that people report are relatively simple. But it can't be the whole story because I've got people reporting ... whole symphonies being stuck in their head, so it does vary, very much, from person to person.

"But ... one thing about earworms is them being repeated a lot, so I get many, many frayed parents who have listened to too many children introduction songs or learning songs, and they heard them 30, 40, 50, 100 times and they're stuck as a result."

On strategies for beating earworms

"I've been collecting earworms for about three years now, and I just started collecting cures. So people were quite spontaneously telling me about ... magic songs that make them sing to get rid of the earworm ... or strategies like going for a run or doing a crossword seemed to help.

"So I've been collecting cures, and I'm going to study them just as well as I'm studying the earworms ... [The songs used to combat earworms] tend to be slow, which is an interesting characteristic. Some people think that the British national anthem sung quite slow is good for getting rid of earworms."

On why she won't reveal which earworms are most common

"I don't want to contaminate everybody's very natural songs, because we know one of the ways in which earworms can happen is people mentioning a song, and then it gets stuck in your head."

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