Music to My Earworms

by Carol A Westbrook

What song did you have in your head when you woke up today? Was it, “Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling” as you recalled your St. Patrick’s Day celebration from the previous weekend?

Probably not. Chances are, the song in your head was not a slow, melodic ballad with simple lyrics, but a catchy, snappy tune. It might have been a line from a popular song, such as Lady Gaga’s  “Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah” from her song Bad Romance, or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Maybe it was an annoying commercial jingle “1-8-7-7-Kars-4-Kids.” Maybe you’re thinking of food, and getting hungry. O-Oh! How about some Spaghetti O’s? Or Rice a Roni, that San Francisco treat?

If you didn’t wake up with a song in your head, you probably have one after reading this far. I’ve just infected you with an earworm.

An earworm is a catchy tune that worms its way into your head when you hear or even read it, and then seems to get stuck there. And it’s really hard to get rid of. Many people enjoy these tunes that loop through their brains, much like they enjoy listening to music on the radio or their iPod. Others find them distracting. And for a very small number of people, they can be incapacitating.

Neurologists and psychologists have been interested in earworms for years, referring to them as involuntary music imagery (INMI). INMI are interesting to scientists because they are involuntary thoughts that we don’t consciously put into our heads, but they seem to appear there on their own. As a matter of fact, 40% of our thoughts are not under our conscious control, but musical thoughts based on popular songs or jingles are perhaps easiest to study because they are readily described.

Most people find that having an earworm is a pleasurable experience. Brain imaging research using MRI scans has confirmed that the pleasure of listening to an earworm is experience by the brain in much the same way as listening to external music, for instance songs played on the radio or an iPod. These studies also showed that certain regions of the brain are thicker or more developed in subjects who are prone to frequent earworms.

We don’t really need a neurology experiment to tell us that earworms can lighten our mood as they keep us company in our morning shower, or when we are sitting in a waiting room with nothing else to do. And just like we find that some songs give us pleasure and some annoy us, stuck songs can be very annoying when they portray a song that we find annoying in real life.

How do we select an earworm? We don’t. It selects us. Since earworms were first described in the early 1900’s, it has been recognized that some songs and melodies are most likely to become stuck in our brains, whereas others are not. What makes a tune sticky and another not is a subject of much interest, especially to the advertising companies who are vying to write the catchiest jingles to make us remember to purchase their product. Scientists have reported that sticky songs are usually 15-30 second in length, and three-fourths of them have lyrics. (I would add that the earworm lyrics are catchy, but the lyrics following the sticky segment are usually harder to remember.) A more comprehensive study by researchers in the UK asked 3,000 people to identify songs that they felt were ‘sticky,” and compared it to a list of songs that none of the participants picked. They found that most earworms are upbeat, have predictable melodies, and include a surprising twist inside that melody. Like Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance.

This would leave out slow, sad ballads like Danny Boy, and most traditional Christmas songs. And you may have noticed that commercial background music–often referred to as Muzak–does not seem to produce earworms. That’s because the bland tunes of Muzak are carefully selected to stay in the background and not take up our attention with a repeating loop of song. Their purpose is to direct us to other activities: to keep us in the store and buy more things, to get us out of the elevator fast, or to remind us that it’s Christmas (spend money). Interestingly, there are few Christmas tunes that reliably produce earworms, though one of the most notorious is Mariah Carey’s, All I Want for Christmas is You.

You can find any number of online polls asking readers for their most common earworms, and they are heavily influenced by which songs are in the popular consciousness at the time. In a recent poll, the top was Bad Romance, which, in case you forgot, goes “rah rah, ah ah ah.” Lady Gaga seems to have a talent for writing tunes that become earworms. In a recent survey she achieved 3 of the top positions, and I’m sure that he recent Oscar-winning song Shallow will be on the list, too. It is for me, anyway.

Lady Gaga may have a rare inborn talent for creating earworms, a talent that most advertising executives would pay dearly for. Unlike Muzak, which is crafted to stay in the background, advertising jingles are created to stick in your head. Jingles have been used to sell products since commercial radio made its appearance in the 1920’s. The first known advertising jingle was in a 1926 Wheaties radio ad. It was the jingle, “Have you tried Wheaties?” to the tune of Jazz Baby popular tune at that time– which is probably why Wheaties licensed the tune.

It’s common for advertisers to use popular tunes for their jingles–remember Microsoft’s theme, Start Me Up,by the Rolling Stones? Yet the most memorable advertising tunes are those that stand alone. Many of us have fond, lasting memories of these tunes, many of which date back to a time when everyone watched the same TV programs (and the same commercials). These include such catchy tunes as “I’m a ToysRUs Kid,” “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Weiner,” and that indelible”800-588-2300, Empire.”

Here is a fun list including videos of some of the most memorable, stickiest jingles. You can probably sing them all by heart. But be warned: one may get stuck in your head and you will have trouble getting rid of it.

Annoying earworms go away eventually for most people, but for a few folks they can persist and become distressing or disturbing. When psychiatrists evaluate someone with a stuck song, they must first determine if the patient perceives the song are arising from within– an earworm–rather than from external sources, such as outer space, or the Devil, or God. Songs that are perceived as external songs are a form of hallucination, and are the symptom of a much more serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia.

In contrast to auditory hallucinations, persistent and distressing earworms that won’t go away can be a sign of OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. People with OCD who are prone to stuck songs that they know are internal can go to extraordinary means to avoid sources of music, such as ringtones and radios. In these cases, doctors look for other signs of OCD, such as compulsive behavior, checking urges, etc. Medications are sometimes used, especially when earworms and other compulsions disrupt normal life.

But if you are a normal person and have an earworm you’d like to exterminate, there are any number of strategies to do this. The first is to embrace it, go with the flow, and sing the song aloud–to its ending. You may have to Google the lyrics, because the first line may be all you remember. If singing aloud is not feasible, try distraction–listen to different music, or do something physical like a sport, or take a walk. Chewing gum works for some people. You can even try to replace it with a song that you find less annoying.

What’s your earworm for today?