Have you ever suffered from an earworm? Maybe you’ve got one burrowing through your brain as you read this very article? Perhaps you picked one up from another person on your last trip to the shops?
Sounds disgusting, but don’t go reaching for your lugs with a bug hunting reference guide just yet – we’re not talking about creepy critters taking up residence in your hearing holes.
Earworm is a term used by psychologists and neuroscientists to describe intrusive, involuntary musical imagery – songs and tunes that pop into, and get stuck inside, your head, and seemingly refuse to leave.
Less icky alternatives do exist such as stuck-song syndrome, sticky music, and cognitive itch.
These involuntary music recalls aren’t always unpleasant of course, such as when an old favorite suddenly springs to life inside your mind’s ear, or a melody line that always seems to put you in a good mood begins to play. These can be pleasantly private soundtracks to your day that tumble through your head as you go about your business.
An attack of the unwanted earworm however can quickly become a major annoyance. From looping repeats of songs you wish had never been written, to tunes you’ve heard a few too many times before, the constant revisiting of unwanted music can is at best a niggling distraction, and at worst the trigger for bad moods and memories.
Dr Vicky Williamson, a music psychologist and memory expert at Goldsmiths University, is a leading earworm hunter. In collaboration with Shaun Keavney’s Breakfast Show on BBC 6Music, Dr Williamson set up the online Earwormery, a site that encourages visitors to share their earworm experiences. Feel free to add yours!
Having compiled over 2,500 records of earworm attacks, the data collected by the Earwormery has lead Dr Williamson to propose a set of triggers that can send a song burrowing deep down into your brain to become an earworm.
Recent and repeated exposure, word triggers, seeing or remembering people associated with a song, situation triggers such as weddings or first dances, stress, surprise, dreams and mind wandering are all potential sources of earworm food.
How do you kill an earworm?
Daniel Levitin of McGill University in Montreal, an expert in the neuroscience of music, suggests that earworms attach themselves to our minds so readily because of how our aural memory evolved.
Speaking to the BBC, the Montreal academic said “for a very long period of time, we needed to remember information. Information like where the well is, or which foods are poisonous and which aren’t, and how to care for wounds so they won’t become infected.”
Levitin suggests that to stop an earworm “just think of another song and hope that’ll push out the first one.”
Somehow that reminds me of a certain old lady who swallowed a fly…
For more in-depth analysis and information on earworms you can visit Dr Vicky Williamson’s blog and Rhitu Chatterje at PRI’s The World, the author of the BBC magazine article.
What are your ‘earworm’ songs and tracks? Do you enjoy hearing your favorite songs over and over, or are you tormented by music that you’d really rather not listen to on repeat?