Singin’ in the Brain: Examining Earworms
Almost everyone has encountered an earworm slowly wriggling its way into their thoughts. Despite the name’s sinister ring, this creepy-crawler is not in fact a living creature and rarely causes medical harm. Instead, people experiencing earworms are more likely to find themselves unconsciously tapping their feet and mouthing the words to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” In fact, Gaga is quite a factory for earworms, a term used to describe “sticky” segments of tunes that are unconsciously repeated by the brain. A 2016 study by the University of London found that of the nine most frequently reported earworms, three of them are Gaga classics. The most common earworm in the study was from her 2009 hit “Bad Romance.”
The idea of a catchy tune is not new—Mark Twain’s narrator is driven nearly to insanity by a set of rhymes stuck in his head during the 1876 short story “Punch, Brothers, Punch!” However, the term earworm, also referred to academically as Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI), was not developed until the 1980s. Today there is still some mystery behind why we get songs stuck in our heads. In his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Oliver Sacks suggests a few possible evolutionary reasons why earworms could be beneficial. One idea is that earworms play an essential role in hunter-gatherer communities in order to ensure that environmental sounds, such as different animal calls, would be repeated until the mind learned to recognize them. 
Another theory is that the songs that get stuck in our heads are a reflection of our inner unconscious associations. Anyone who has been transported back to a childhood memory by a song can attest to the fact that music and memory are intricately connected. Theodor Reik, a psychoanalyst who studied under Freud, suggests that most of these associations go unnoticed, but that they are always there. In The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music, Reik states his belief that “[whatever] secret message it carries, the incidental music accompanying our conscious thinking is never accidental.”
Whether or not our earworms can provide a window into our unconscious selves, studies of blood flow in various regions of the brain have shown that simply thinking about a piece of music can activate the same neural structures that musicians activate when performing. These studies suggest that our musical imagery could provide the same benefits as performing or listening to music in real life, including reductions in anxiety and depression.
Of course, not all earworms are beneficial, such as the maddening case of INMI described in the Mark Twain story. As you probably know from experience, an earworm can frequently cause annoyance and anxiety, especially when the song is not well-liked by the experiencer. A man prone to earworms from Frank Sinatra’s version of “Love and Marriage” described how he “got trapped inside the tempo of the song,” which “interfered with his schoolwork, his thinking, his peace of mind, [and] his sleep.”
Musicians have been trying to figure out how to craft tunes catchy enough to lose sleep over for decades, resulting in the creation of “formulas” to generate chart-topping hits. The same researchers from the University of London who identified Lady Gaga’s adeptness at producing earworms analyzed the database of INMIs to determine some of the features of common earworms. They found that tunes were more likely to get stuck in participant’s heads when they were upbeat in tempo or contained subsequent rises and falls in pitch (as exemplified in “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”). Other studies echoed these claims, and went on to suggest that songs containing notes of longer duration and smaller pitch intervals also have greater likelihood of becoming earworms. The researchers believe these features may make it easier for listeners to sing along and replicate a song without musical training.
Identifying what makes a song stick in our heads could help music writers craft songs and advertisement jingles that are more likely to be remembered by the audience. Understanding earworms could also bring researchers closer to understanding why people with neurological disorders like Tourette’s syndrome or obsessive-compulsive disorder can become involuntarily fixated with a word or a noise. However, as those of you who are still humming “Bad Romance” while reading this will be relieved to hear, there are ways that can help eliminate any earworm stuck in your brain. Study participants have reported that simply listening to their earworm song all the way through can help put an end to their INMI.
Rah rah ah-ah-ah!
Ro mah ro-mah-mah
- Jakubowski, K., Finkel, S., Stewart, L., & Müllensiefen, D. (2017). Dissecting an earworm: Melodic features and song popularity predict involuntary musical imagery. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11(2), 122-135. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000090
- Sacks, O. (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. New York: Random House.
- Pascual-Leone, A. (2001), The Brain That Plays Music and Is Changed by It. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 930: 315–329. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2001.tb05741.x
- Reik, T. (1983). The haunting melody: Psychoanalytic experiences in life and music. New York: Da Capo.
- Williamson, V. J., & Jilka, S. R. (2013). Experiencing earworms: An interview study of Involuntary Musical Imagery. Psychology of Music, 42(5), 653-670. doi:10.1177/0305735613483848