The psychology of songs that get stuck in your head


Every few years, a song that is particularly likely to get stuck in people’s heads comes along. Such songs are often talked about, as they have the power to repeat in the minds of more than a few people. Such songs are known as earworms. To psychologists, this phenomenon is known as involuntary musical imagery. Everyone gets songs stuck in their head often, or ninety percent of American adults do, according to psychologists who have studied the issue.

Most of the time, people find having a song stuck in their head to be mildly annoying or mildly enjoyable. It is not a big deal in most cases. However, some people can find this phenomenon to be unpleasant, even to the point of torment. According to the journal The Psychology of Music, more than a few people are haunted by endlessly repeating songs to the extent that that this phenomenon has a significantly negative effect on their lives.

Elizabeth Margulis, the director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, songs that get stuck in people’s heads have some predictable characteristics. They are almost always songs with lyrics and not instrumental songs. Typically, only a portion of a song gets stuck in a person’s head. The songs are simplistic and catchy; a more complex song is not likely to repeat in a person’s mind endlessly. The songs tend to be those who a person heard recently, so the same song is not expected to remain in a person’s brain for a long time. Movie clips, commercials, and slogans can sometimes end up repeating in a person’s mind in the same way as songs. Sometimes, seeing something that reminds someone of a song can be enough to cause it to start playing in their heads, even if they have not heard the song recently. Earworm songs are likely to be faster and more upbeat than other songs.

Have earworm songs always existed, or did they not exist until recently? No one knows, but Margulis suspects that they did not exist until modern times. The earworm is a consequence of recorded music. Before recorded music, one would hear a song played in a slightly different way each time. Recorded music involves repeatedly hearing a song played in the same way, which has an odd psychological effect on the brain. The brain is surprised by hearing a piece of music so identical to what was heard before that it decides it is essential and must be remembered. Music is strongly linked to memory and can be used to help people with disorders that weaken their ability to remember.

If one is trying to get a song out of their head, a mentally demanding task will often cure it. Anything that requires skill and focus will divert the mind to the job, and allow one to forget the song. Many people suggest that chewing gum can help. It is a simple and repetitive action that clears the mind. Since it is difficult to think and talk at the same time, a conversation may be enough to get a song out of your head. You should not necessarily avoid hearing the song again – sometimes, intentionally listening to the song can rid your mind of it.