Investigating The Anatomy Of The Musical Earworm

Weekend Edition Sunday guest host Linda Wertheimer talks with Ira Hyman, a professor of psychology at Western Washington University, about his new study. He investigated "earworms," songs that get stuck in your head, and why they lodge themselves in our brains.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Unless you spent December avoiding the mall, the television, higher ends of the FM dial and those cute carolers that come to your door, there's a pretty good chance you heard one of these.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Silver bells, silver bells...

MARIAH CAREY: (Singing) All I want for Christmas is you...

WERTHEIMER: And there's also a reasonable chance at least a line or two of these classics got stuck in your head. And that's when they became what some people call an earworm. Ira Hyman is a professor of psychology at Western Washington University. And he's just published a new study on earworms and how they lodge themselves in our brains. He joins us now from his home in Bellingham, Washington. Good morning.

IRA HYMAN: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So, is it true that the most annoying songs make the best earworms?

HYMAN: Actually, probably not. When most people report the songs that are in their head, they turn out to be songs that they like and they know relatively well. And also there are songs that they were listening to recently, which is probably why all those Christmas songs get stuck in people's heads. They heard them recently. They generally like them and they know them fairly well.

WERTHEIMER: You also found that there is a tendency for just one line or one verse to sort of make an earworm especially sticky.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "TUBTHUMPING")

CHUMBAWAMBA: (Singing) I get knocked down but I get up again, you're never gonna keep me down...

HYMAN: Yeah. People don't hear the entire song. It's a small part of the song, oftentimes from the chorus that's just sort of looping in their heads as though they can't quite finish the entire song. There's this lovely effect where if you've had an unfinished thought it tends to stay active. And even if it leaves awareness for a while, it will come back again later.

WERTHEIMER: How do you cure an earworm?

HYMAN: If we really get the song out of your head, you've got to really get yourself cognitively engaged in something that takes up all of consciousness and doesn't leave any space left over for that music to be playing in the background. Or try a different version of the disease, right? Just listen to another piece of music that you like, to get it started.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Now, what is the most recent song that got stuck in your head?

HYMAN: It doesn't take much for me to start hearing Christmas songs at the time of this year. So, you know, I've had "White Christmas" in my head over the last few weeks hoping we'd get one. Of course, we didn't out here in Bellingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) I'm dreaming of a White Christmas just like the one...

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.

HYMAN: It's been a pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: Ira Hyman is a professor of psychology at Western Washington University.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME MAYBE")

CARLY RAE JEPSEN: (Singing) Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here's my number so call me maybe. It's hard to look right at you, baby...

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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