If you listen to music, you’ve probably had songs stuck in your head.
You sing them in the car, shower, and the song buzzes around in your brain all day long, sometimes for several days at a time.
At times, the song in your head can be so vivid that it’s almost like you’re listening to it with earbuds. At other times, the song is just running through your mind, almost like a background track.
These are called earworms (not to be confused with the insect called an earwig). Most people experience them and they’re an interesting side-effect of the music we listen to.
What Are Earworms?
This is a very normal phenomenon most people experience. When a song is stuck in your head, it’s often called an earworm. But it goes by other names, like stuck song syndrome and brainworms.
Earworms are generally harmless and go away on their own.
But there have been cases when the earworm doesn’t go away. There is anecdotal evidence of people who have songs stuck in their heads for years, sometimes decades.
Scientists who study earworms call them involuntary music imagery (INMI). Earworms are studied because they provide a fascinating insight into the brain and music, and how the two interact.
What Songs Most Commonly Cause Earworms?
One of the big subjects scientists study involving earworms are the type of songs that cause them to get stuck in your head to begin with.
Do these songs have anything in common? Do they belong to a specific genre? Yes, they do, scientists have discovered.
A study completed by British researchers concluded that the most common songs that become earworms have the following traits in common:
– Memorable melody
– A generic sound
– Fast tempos
– A lot of repetition
– Have achieved high popularity
This means that the songs most likely to become earworms are the ones that hit the top of the music charts, often by well-known artists. Scientists concluded that most of these songs are more recent hits, though they identified a few oldies.
Some common songs that produce earworms are Bad Romance by Lady Gaga, Don’t Stop Believing by Journey, and California Gurls by Katy Perry. But any song with a simple, catchy melody can do the same.
How To Get Rid Of Earworms
Even though earworms are harmless, they can still be annoying and distracting. In extreme cases, the individual might need to see a professional, like a therapist or psychiatrist, and use cognitive behavioral therapy to help get past the song by changing thought patterns. But that solution is only needed when the earworm doesn’t go away for a long period of time and is highly disruptive to the person’s life.
Other remedies include just listening to the song all the way through. This is based on the fact most earworms are just bits and pieces of a song. By listening to the song all the way through, it breaks this cycle.
This remedy is backed up by a 2014 study that found this remedy to be extremely effective. Some took this a step further and listened to another song immediately after listening to the earworm song.
Another remedy is one that seems odd at first but also is rooted in science. This remedy is to chew gum. The theory was that when a song is stuck in our head, we subvocalize it by saying the words to the song. Chewing gum interrupted that subvocalization because it occupied part of the brain responsible for forming words with another task – chewing gum. People found that this remedy does work.
Finally, another solution is to simply not think about the song. While that’s easier said than done, it happens to be very effective. By simply ignoring it and staying distracted with other tasks, earworms tend to go away on their own. After all, most people (if not all) who listen to music are bound to get a song stuck in their head every once in a while. This is normal. And if one listens to music as a daily part of their life, songs will come and go as earworms. In other words, it tends to balance out.
Benefits Of Earworms
Yes, having a song stuck in your head can actually have benefits. The negatives of earworms are mostly associated with being annoying and, at the very worst, disrupting everyday life. But they do have positive effects. Among them is bringing a sense of joy and happiness. If one of your favorite songs is stuck in your head, there’s a good chance you’ll find it pleasurable. Music can make people feel creative, energetic, and even daydreamy. Music is even strongly associated with nostalgia.
Earworms can even be useful, especially when it comes to memory. Music is a powerful thing and can stir up memories much easier than simply trying to remember something that happened in the past. For example, studies have found that people who remember movie soundtracks associated with movie clips are able to remember the clip in much more detail than when one doesn’t associate the clip with the soundtrack. They also found that listening to the soundtrack over several days allowed people to recall the scene in near-perfect detail. This falls in line with music being highly associated with nostalgia.
Earworms are also believed to affect people who have a lot on their mind or are under a lot of stress. They give the brain a little break by focusing on something simple and repetitive. And sometimes earworms are caused by songs that are just fun to listen to.
Don’t Let Earworms Stress You Out
Unless it interferes with your everyday life, earworms are nothing to worry about and are completely normal. Enjoy them while they last and let them come and go as you listen to your favorite music.
Music affects the brain in a lot of different ways and can produce complex emotions in people. Memories are also tied to music. In other words, music is a big part of our life, and it never quite leaves our subconscious. Earworms are a reflection of how music affects us.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.