Most people enjoy listening to music and can name off several favorites when asked. But have you ever experienced an earworm? An earworm is when part of a song, usually catchy, gets stuck in a person’s mind and replays over and over. You may also hear it referred to as a brainworm or stuck song syndrome. But why does it happen? Why is there a song stuck in my head?
When we listen to music the auditory cortex portion of the brain is actively involved. The more we listen to a song, the more familiar it becomes to the brain. The auditory cortex becomes good at filling in the rhythm of the song. This means that even when the song is no longer playing, your brain sometimes keeps singing along. You are forced to pay attention to the song and find yourself repeating it over and over. But the more you repeat the song the longer you perpetuate the cycle of involuntary musical imagery (INMI).
Some researchers believe that having a song stuck in your head could also be a sign of an idling brain. The brain is trying to keep busy and so it latches on to a pattern of repetition. The songs most likely to get stuck have upbeat simple melodies with easy to remember repetitive lyrics. They also tend to be current trending songs or even advertisement jingles. To put it simply, the easier a song is to sing and the more memorable it is, the more likely it is to get stuck in your head.
It is estimated that 98% of people will have experienced an earworm at least once in their life. Interestingly, research shows that both men and women experience earworms at about the same rate although they usually last longer in women. Moreover, most earworms come from songs with lyrics – over 70%. Instrumental music tends not to cause earworms at anywhere near the same rate.
The British Journal of Psychology published a report in 2010 stating earworms usually occur in repeating loops of 15 to 30 seconds. They are also more likely to occur in people who listen to music more regularly or work with music. People who are tired and stressed will also have a higher occurrence rate. In fact, individuals with obsessive-compulsive tendencies report having earworms more often than those who don’t.
How to stop it
Research shows that engaging the brain in a different activity could help stop an earworm. The key is to engage working memory in mildly difficult activities. You can try doing puzzles, anagrams, math problems or even read a novel. Another option, for immediate relief, could be chewing gum.
The act of chewing gum can potentially stop an earworm by blocking the auditory cortex from repeating itself. The auditory cortex is stopped from producing and projecting auditory, especially musical, images. You could also try listening to the song in its entirety or playing a different song altogether. But some people report this can actually make it worse. So our advice is to try the gum.