A favorite song, an annoying tune, a TV advertising jingle, the first level of Super Mario Bros.—almost everyone has experienced the unexpected intrusion of an earworm. They are easy to form and hard to get rid of; one study found 90% of over 12,000 people surveyed experienced earworms at least once a week.
The term “earworm” comes from the German der Ohrwurm, meaning musical itch, coined in 1979 by the psychiatrist Cornelius Eckert. Defined by researchers as a looped segment of music usually about 20 seconds long that suddenly plays in our heads without any conscious effort, an earworm can last for hours, days, or even, in extreme cases, months. It’s a form of mind-wandering; earworms tend to pop up when our brain is idle or seeking distraction—often when we’re bored, but sometimes when we’re simply overloaded. It’s telling that those with neuroses or who are tired or stressed are particularly vulnerable to earworms, according to James Kellaris, a University of Cincinnati professor who has done extensive research on the subject.
Earworms can show up in almost any situation: injured and stranded on a remote Peruvian mountain following a climbing accident, mountaineer Joe Simpson found himself plagued by Boney M’s “Brown Girl in the Ring.” “It went on for hours and hours… I was thinking, bloody hell, I’m going to die to Boney M,” he says in the documentary Touching the Void.
Earworms come about because our minds crave patterns as a way of understanding, processing, and recalling information. In the ancient times, long before before Google or even books, our ancestors relied on memory and good old-fashioned talking to pass on information vital to survival. This, notes cognitive scientist David Rubin, led to various storytelling techniques that made tales more memorable and easily retold, including patterns of sound such as rhythm, rhyme, repetition and alliteration.
This all comes together in song. As Ian Cross, professor of music and science at the University of Cambridge puts it, “There’s not only the rhythmic structure, but there’s also melodic structure—the tune, the ups and downs, and the pitch that the words accompany. Put all these together, and that gives you a very powerful set of cues to remember.”
Musical memory works more like how we remember skills, like playing tennis, than how we recall facts. It doesn’t have to be conscious, it just happens, says Matthew Schulkind, a cognitive scientist at Amherst College. “Once you get a song started, you don’t have to think about what comes next,” he told Discover. You hear the first few notes of a song—or some cue that reminds your brain of it—and the rest comes pouring out, your mind filling in the blanks automatically. MRI scans have shown that when the brain hears even part of a song it knows, the auditory cortex keeps following along, even when the rest of the song is muted.
Some songs are more likely to stick than others. According to science, a the most effective earworms have notes that are held for a long-ish duration but with smaller pitch intervals (i.e. closer together on the musical scale, such as a C and a C-sharp or D), two factors that also make songs easier to sing. Basically, if the song has an element of predictability—a simple melody, repetitive lyrics— and some kind of novelty, like an extra beat or unusual rhythm, it makes for a good earworm. Unsurprisingly, these are the same factors the pop and jingle industries work into their tunes, with Lady Gaga and Abba among the most common earworms scientists have faced.
In addition, people tend to remember the songs that annoy them more, says Victoria Williamson, a music psychologist at the University of Sheffield. “If you ask somebody about an earworm, they’ll tell you about the one that annoyed them yesterday. They won’t tell you the three or four they briefly had in their head which they didn’t really notice,” she told Science Friday.
The good news is that earworms are generally harmless. At the same time, scientists have found that up to a third of people surveyed find them annoying or disturbing—and in some rare cases can lead to clinical anxiety. So, the key question here: How do I get rid of an earworm?
Science has three common techniques for you: engage, distract or accept.
One school of thought is that earworms appear because some part of our brain hasn’t finished fully processing them—it’s a little like a skipping record stuck in a player. So to cure yourself, you just need to play the song all the way through and be done with it.
Another tactic is to keep your brain busy. You could try listening to something else to force the tune out of your brain. One group of scientists were able to stop Lady Gaga earworms by making their subjects play sudoku puzzles—not too difficult, but just enough to keep their brains occupied. If they were too tough or too easy, Gaga won out. Another study found that just chewing gum can be enough to distract.
The last option: just let the earworm run its course. It’s a tactic researchers say actually works in many cases, particularly if—unsurprisingly—you actually like the tune. Whispered words of wisdom: let it be.