Whether you call the phenomenon earworm, stuck song syndrome, brain worm or involuntary musical imagery (INMI), it still presents the same puzzling problem.
The important question is: How can a song get stuck in your head?
Well, here’s what's causing it. Also, read on to find out how you can get rid of earworms and the most common earworm songs, according to studies.
WHAT ARE EARWORMS AND WHAT CAUSES THEM?
“Earworm” is a term used to describe when a catchy song gets stuck in your head, thus causing your brain to mentally replay the track long after it stops playing. It doesn’t even have to be an entire song – it can be a repetitive (and therefore, more memorable) section of a track, like a chorus.
Multiple factors can cause earworms. For example, you might be more predisposed to earworms if you have a good memory. In this case, recalling catchy songs or the most memorable portions is more straightforward.
The occurrence can also be influenced by your emotional state, a song’s structure and whether you have a musical background.
Credit: Erik Mclean/Unsplash
THE FORMATION OF NEURAL NETWORKS
For a song to become an earworm, a series of neural networks must first be formed. These networks are created between the parts of the brain involved in processing memory, perception, emotion and thought.
Once these brain networks have formed, they can be “triggered” by hearing the earworm song, among other things.
YOUR BRAIN IS TRYING TO CLOSE A GAP
Sometimes when your brain is trying to close a gap, it gets stuck in a loop until the information needed to complete the circle is located and fully processed. A gap in the auditory cortex (the part of your brain that processes and decodes sound) can cause an earworm.
IF YOU LISTEN TO A SONG REPEATEDLY
When you listen to a song repeatedly, the brain prioritises sending the sound information to the phonological loop.
The phonological loop is located in the auditory cortex and is “dedicated to working memory”. It also has a phonological store that temporarily houses verbal information.
An articulatory loop replays the “[sound] representations in the phonological store” as an inner dialogue.
In the case of earworms, this process causes your mind to repeat a song or parts of a song.
YOUR EMOTIONAL STATE
Earworms can also occur depending on your emotional state. Earworms are more likely to become embedded when you associate a song with a positive mood, or it’s otherwise “personally meaningful”. If a piece reconnects a listener to meaningful past events, a positive memory, or creates a nostalgic state, for example.
While earworms “tend not to be associated with negative emotions”, they can occur after you’ve experienced “negative” emotions over a prolonged time.
So, if you listened to a song throughout an intensely stressful period that lasted several months, the music is more likely to form an earworm.
THE STRUCTURE OF A SONG
A song’s structure can significantly influence its potential to become an earworm. You can often predict the pieces that will likely cause stuck song syndrome based on whether it has a faster tempo, a typical but catchy melody, and a-typical repetitions or intervals (unexpected leaps, for example).
HOW DO YOU TO GET RID OF EARWORMS?
Credit: Budgeron Bach/Pexels
Earworms can be triggered by the most recent song you’ve heard or one you’ve listened to multiple times. And once earworm songs become stuck, they can be tricky to remove.
Still, there are a few ways to unstick those catchy pieces or sections of music.
DON’T OVER-LISTEN TO SONGS
When it comes to earworms, prevention is often easier than the cure. So even if a song speaks to you, try to resist the temptation of listening to it on repeat. Especially if the track meets the criteria (easy to sing along to or has a catchy melody), which makes it more likely to become an earworm song.
LISTEN TO A SONG’S ENTIRE DURATION
Listening to an entire song creates fewer gaps in sound information that your brain might try to fill later.
It also prevents the Zeigarnik Effect. In psychology, the Zeigarnik Effect states that when a task is interrupted, your brain will recall it in your working memory until it’s completed.
Try chewing gum if you have an existing earworm that you’d like to stop in its tracks. Chewing gum has been shown to interfere with the “articulatory motor programming” associated with musical cognition and lower the instances of voluntary and unwanted “musical thoughts”.
LET IT BE
Trying to control or regulate your thoughts can often do more harm than good because it causes your brain to fixate on the very thoughts you’re trying to prevent.
In the case of an earworm, fixating on getting rid of it can encourage the brain to keep recollecting the song or section of the song.
Earworms are common and usually dissipate quickly, provided we don’t fixate on them.
It is, however, essential to note that in some instances, a persistent earworm (it stays for longer than 24 hours) can indicate a more serious issue that may require professional medical advice.
MOST COMMON EARWORM SONGS, ACCORDING TO STUDIES
Lady Gaga during 'The Chromatica Ball' at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London (2022). Credit: Raph_PH/Wikimedia Commons
Research published by the American Psychological Association highlights the most common earworm songs as named by the study’s 3,000 participants.
‘BAD ROMANCE’ BY LADY GAGA
“Bad Romance” (2009) by Lady Gaga was the most common earworm song named by study participants. The song’s fast tempo and chorus are archetypal to the musical elements that give a piece the most earworm potential.
‘CAN’T GET YOU OUT OF MY HEAD’ BY KYLIE MINOGUE
In a serious case of foreshadowing, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” (2001) by Kylie Minogue was the second most common earworm song cited in the study.
‘DON’T STOP BELIEVING’ BY JOURNEY
The study found Journey’s 1981 classic “Don’t Stop Believing” to be the third most named earworm track. The timeless appeal of “Don’t Stop Believing” saw it become the best-selling digital track in the twentieth century over 20 years after its initial release.
Listen to more earworm tunes here.
Cover Credit: A Paper Creative
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Writer | Rachael Hope
Rachael Hope is a writer and visual artist. She loves to explore the connections between creativity in all its forms and broader culture. When not being creative herself, you’ll find her practising yoga or exploring nature.