How do songs you haven’t heard in ages get stuck in your head?

music in your head

This bizarre phenomenon goes by several names, such as Stuck Song Syndrome, Sticky Music, or, the scientifically preferred Involuntary Musical Imagery. I’m going to stick with Earworm, because it’s the shortest, plus it reminds me of my childhood.

Earworms are songs that play in your mind even (and especially) when you don’t want them to. “But why is it always music?”, you may ask.

Well, just how often do you have an experience identical to a previous one? Think about it. Recorded music is pretty unique amongst life’s experiences. If you see the same object (say, a poster in your room) over and over, it will always be slightly different: the angle will be slightly different, and differences in lighting may make the colours appear more or less vivid. With music there is very little variation of this kind. You hear pretty much exactly the same thing every time.

Now think, what tactic do you use when you’re trying to learn vocabulary, when you really want that new word to stick in your head? You repeat it as exactly as possible. And then repeat it again. By listening to something repeatedly, you’re sending your mind the wrong signals – that you want to memorise it. You’re telling your brain that this song is something important,, and your mind retaliates by learning it so well that it becomes something you can experience again and again and again…. These memories eventually reach long-term memory, so even very old Earworms can be resurrected when you prompt them with the right cue.

Business savvy people have turned this strange habit of our brains into, well, a business: now you can learn your French vocabs by turning them into Earworms, or should I say “vers d’oreille” (yeah, that’s French for Earworm).

Another question that goes hand-in-hand with the whole why-the-hell of Earworms, is why certain songs trigger it, and some just don’t. Researchers at Goldsmiths University, London (in a combined effort with BBC Radio) may have the answer. It turns out that they can pretty accurately predict a song’s potential to stick in people’s heads based on certain patterns (they’re not sharing the specifics with us just yet). Irrespective of specific song features, Earworms tend to be songs you’ve heard a lot (makes sense) and songs you like (could have guessed that, really).

But fear not! There is a cure: keep your brain busy enough so there’s no mental space left for the intrusive song. Science says anagrams do the trick, as does a gripping novel. If the task is too easy, your mind can (and probably will) play the song back at the same time. If the task it too hard, your mind gives up and turns to the much easier task of replaying the song. It’s a real-life Goldilocks situation, just without the whole risk of being eaten alive by angry bears.


Question from Mad Moules via Facebook

Answer by Isabel Hutchison

Article by Isabel Hutchison

October 1, 2013

Isabel is currently working on a Ph.D. in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Sleep (which, ironically, involves not getting very much sleep at all). Besides doing science and writing about it (check out her sleep science blog here), Isabel loves music, dancing , travelling and art.

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