Admit it: There has been a time when a tune gets stuck in your head and keeps looping. From running errands, to eating dinner, and perhaps lying in bed, you may find that the tune won’t slip your mind.
Are you going insane? Not at all. You have what is known as an earworm.
An earworm is a song or melody that keeps repeating in your brain. According to psychology, the most interesting thing about them is that they demonstrate a part of our mind that is out of our control.
In his book Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sacks describes earworms as a clear sign of the helpless sensitivity of our brains to music. Both music and earworms are defined by repetition, musical memories that play over and over again. This is why that one verse or hook may be so hard to shake.
Is an earworm a bad thing?
Dr. Victoria Williamson, a UK-based music psychologist, has long been fascinated by the earworm phenomena. She lends her expertise on how earworms happen.
“It’s a short snippet of music that comes unbidden to the mind which you didn’t mean to think of at the time, Williamson said. “This is also known as being involuntary. It then repeats at least once.”
This is different than voluntary sounds where a person intentionally brings an image or memory to the mind.
“People often get this wrong, but earworms are not just songs. They can be reactions,” Williamson said. “It’s an urban myth that these snippets have to be annoying.”
For her research, Williamson had more than 1, 000 people keep a diary to track of their music experiences.
When the analysis came back only a third of participants found ear worms to be annoying. The rest had no problem, while others believed it was entertaining.
So how does one get rid of the earworm?
Well, it all depends on the individual. Williamson mentions a few techniques to try if your remedies fail.
1. Verbal Distractions: Try to recite a mantra, prayer or even a story. Crosswords, emailing and texting have also shown to be effective.
“This suggests that the mental faculties that support verbal activity are also involved in maintaining earworms (lyrical or not). Occupying those circuits with a wordy task often knocks out the sticky tune,” Williamson said.
2. Challenge Your Mind: This includes a math-based puzzle (such as Sudoku), or a random generation task that requires monitoring. An example could be listing all the alkali metals on the Periodic Table of Elements, in order, without repeating yourself.
“It is similar logic to filling your mind up with something wordy, but the idea here is that if the task is tricky enough it need not be verbal in nature,” Williamson said.
3. Hum a Tune: It’s not certain if there is a universal song that will help everyone, but a couple that have been known to work include the theme to the A-Team, and Happy Birthday.
Ear Worms Over The Decades