Earworms – commonplace musical memories

earwormtitleWe’ve all had the initially enjoyable then endlessly irritating experience of a tune being stuck in the head. Typically, a fragment of a half-remembered melody gets repeatedly hummed and whistled over and over again throughout the day. Sometimes this earworm is caused by hearing a piece, and can easily be displaced by listening to something else; but sometimes the earworm seems to come almost from nowhere, and eventually disappears again just as mysteriously.

Last week, I thoroughly enjoyed having Rodgers and Hammerstein’s catchy musical number My Favourite Things floating around my head, no doubt caused by listening to Stephen Hough’s mind-bogglingly difficult but extraordinarily effective piano arrangement (which I am rather ambitiously considering learning…). But why do some pieces of music ‘stick’ while others disappear immediately?

Earworms are a special type of involuntary musical imagery based primarily on sound. Variously dubbed as “sticky music” (Sacks, 2007), a “cognitive itch” (Kellaris, 2008) or “stuck song syndrome” (Levitin, 2006), earworms are a form of persistent musical memory [Halpern & Bartlett, Music Perception, 28 (2012): 425]. The fact that almost all of us experience earworms indicates not only that we are all capable of musical memory, but also that some music is naturally easily to memorise.  We are easily able to recall an earworm and hear it inside our heads, and actually find it rather difficult to stop listening over and over again!

A group of UK researchers from Goldsmith’s, University of London have started an Earwormery in collaboration with the BBC 6music to investigate the phenomenon further, by asking the public to tell them about tunes that get stuck in their heads. Published survey data suggest that the experience of earworms is extremely commonplace, particularly amongst those who consider music to be important [Beaman & Williams, BJ Psych 101 (2010): 637-53]. Most earworms are caused by familiar songs rather than instrumental music, and tend to have a simple melody with repetitive lyrics. Interestingly, “earworms are both frequent and idiosyncratic, with little overlap between individuals and little recurrence within individuals”.

Fortunately earworms are unlikely to last more than 24 hours and are usually not unpleasant experiences. Unfortunately, research suggests that “active attempts to block or eliminate the earworm are less successful than passive acceptance”. So next time you have an earworm, you may as well enjoy it while it lasts!

Further reading:

ICMPC 2012 (International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition) – website of a symposium delivered in July 2012 dedicated to the science of Earworms


About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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