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Why do songs get stuck in your head?
The Straight Dope ^ | October 16, 2009 | Cecil Adams

Posted on 10/24/2009 4:34:36 AM PDT by Slings and Arrows

October 16, 2009

Dear Cecil:

What’s the deal with getting a song stuck in your head? Why does it happen, especially if it’s a song you don’t like or don’t even know well? Yet all you can think about is that stupid tune. Please enlighten me; I’m getting really sick of “Tainted Love” running circles through my brain.

Meg

Cecil replies:

You think you’ve got problems? My assistant Una claims she had the same tune running through her head off and on for 27 years. Only after laborious research online was she able to establish what it was: a concerto by Antonio Vivaldi, which at least has some class. Can you imagine 27 years of “Achy Breaky Heart”?

As is all too often the case with the interesting parts of science, we don’t know much about this phenomenon but we have a good name for it: earworm, a translation of the German Ohrwurm. (Use the German if you want anyone to pay attention to you in the faculty lounge.) People have been interested in earworms for a while now — Mark Twain used one as a plot device in his 1876 story “A Literary Nightmare.” They’re the most common type of what’s called “involuntary imagery,” sounds, pictures, smells, and even tastes that repeatedly come to mind unbidden.

One theory is that earworms are a form of mild musical hallucination (normally a rare experience), the distinction being that with an earworm you (a) usually aren’t on drugs or suffering from schizophrenia and thus (b) are fully aware there’s no actual music being played outside of your skull. Another theory is that earworms are a side effect of your brain trying to consolidate memories, akin to what happens in REM sleep. Yet another possibility is pondered by neurologist Oliver Sacks in his book Musicophilia: earworms might simply be a consequence of our being surrounded by music in our lives whether we want to be or not.

A more promising line of investigation in my opinion is to focus on the earworminess of particular songs. Una contacted the office of James Kellaris, a professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati who’s styled himself “Dr. Earworm” after years studying the subject, to learn more about a theory of his known as “cognitive itch.” According to Kellaris, “certain pieces of music may have properties that excite an abnormal reaction in the brain” — in other words, your brain detects something extraordinary or unusual about the music that compels attention. Your brain tries to process the itch by repeating it, which only makes things worse — not unlike an epidermal itch. Kellaris finds the music most likely to cause an earworm has one or more of three key qualities: repetitiveness, simplicity, and what he calls incongruity, often an unexpected rhythmic variation. One example he gives is the song “America” from West Side Story, which features a repetitive melody and shifting time signatures.

A 2003 study by Kellaris showed that nearly 98 percent of people experienced earworms, usually involving sung rather than instrumental tunes. (Una’s Vivaldi was a relative rarity, obviously indicating her superior intellect.) While women and men experienced earworms equally often, women had to put up with them for longer and were more likely to be peeved. Kellaris’s research also suggests that musicians and those inclined to worry are particularly susceptible to worm attacks.

In the early 1980s Chicago parking garage bigwig Myron Warshauer used earworms as the basis of a patented “musical theme floor reminder system,” in which a different well-known song plays in each floor’s elevator lobby. When you come back hours later and can’t remember what floor you parked on, all you have to do is pay attention to the tune that’s (theoretically) still running through your head — the song titles are listed opposite the buttons in the elevators.

Despite all this, no one really knows what causes earworms or how to get rid of them. Common removal techniques include replacing the tune with a different one, trying to distract oneself with something else, listening to the piece in question, talking to others about the earworm, or just waiting the worm out.

In an unscientific poll on the Straight Dope Message Board, more than half of 91 respondents reported experiencing earworms daily, with popular music by far the most common culprit. About half could get rid of an earworm only by putting something else in its place; 30 percent said nothing worked reliably. Another survey of 286 people found earwormants typically had heard the song three times or more just before the earworm set in and were in a “neutral to positive emotional state” but alone and bored. So avoid ennui, my friends. That’s when the earworms strike.

A final infobit: A 2005 survey found 7.5 percent of respondents were inflicted by their least favorite song as an earworm, and more than a third hated the song’s lyrics more than anything else about it. The most loathed tune? No surprise here: Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart.”

Cecil Adams


TOPICS: Health/Medicine; Humor; Music/Entertainment
KEYWORDS: napl; songs
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Now why would anyone hate this? *evilgrin*
1 posted on 10/24/2009 4:34:36 AM PDT by Slings and Arrows
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To: Slings and Arrows

Maybe just because I’m “Stuck on a Feelin’” “High on Believin”


2 posted on 10/24/2009 4:35:40 AM PDT by Gaffer
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To: Gaffer

Thank God that empty suit Obama didn’t have a campaign song.


3 posted on 10/24/2009 4:38:07 AM PDT by Loud Mime (The time to water the tree of liberty approaches......)
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To: Slings and Arrows; MeekOneGOP; Conspiracy Guy; DocRock; King Prout; Darksheare; OSHA; ...
o/~ If it hadn't been for Cotton-Eye Joe, I'd'a been married long time ago... ~\o


4 posted on 10/24/2009 4:39:20 AM PDT by Slings and Arrows ("When France chides you for appeasement, you know you're scraping bottom." --Charles Krauthammer)
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To: Gaffer

I’m trying to get Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” out of my head for the last few days.


5 posted on 10/24/2009 4:40:51 AM PDT by BunnySlippers (I LOVE BULL MARKETS . . .)
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To: Slings and Arrows

6 posted on 10/24/2009 4:41:11 AM PDT by JoeProBono (A closed mouth gathers no feet)
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To: Slings and Arrows

Rush Limbaugh uses a certain song in his bumper music every now and then and it’s always around 1:45 to 2 PM EST. I know it’s a song from the 1970s and the tune gets stuck in my head. I just cant recall the name. Drives me crazy!


7 posted on 10/24/2009 4:42:58 AM PDT by gattaca (Great things can be accomplished if you don't care who gets the credit. Ronald Reagan)
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To: Loud Mime
Thank God that empty suit Obama didn’t have a campaign song.

Didn't he?

8 posted on 10/24/2009 4:44:00 AM PDT by Slings and Arrows ("When France chides you for appeasement, you know you're scraping bottom." --Charles Krauthammer)
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To: BunnySlippers

The song that gets stuck in my head the most is the one from
a movie in the mid-60s called “Rome Holiday” or something like that. Had Suzanne Pleschette and Troy Donohue in it. During the movie was a song at a restaurant called “Al Di La” or something like that. Everytime I see the movie, the song’s in my head for days.


9 posted on 10/24/2009 4:44:18 AM PDT by Gaffer
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To: JoeProBono
*Lmao*....one of my favorite scenes....
10 posted on 10/24/2009 4:44:27 AM PDT by Doogle (USAF.68-73..8th TFW Ubon Thailand..never store a threat you should have eliminated))
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To: Slings and Arrows

Its a sound track.


11 posted on 10/24/2009 4:44:43 AM PDT by cripplecreek (Seniors, the new shovel ready project under socialized medicine.)
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To: Slings and Arrows
Presently I'm stuck with Peter and Gordon's World Without Love.
12 posted on 10/24/2009 4:44:51 AM PDT by RetroSexual
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To: Slings and Arrows

OK... The all time BEST cure to get any song out of your head... The theme song to “Flipper”.

The only problem is... *nothing* gets the theme song to “Flipper” out of your head.

go figger.


13 posted on 10/24/2009 4:46:50 AM PDT by roamer_1 (Globalism is just Socialism in a business suit)
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To: gattaca

Pretenders, “My City Was Gone”?


14 posted on 10/24/2009 4:47:00 AM PDT by Slings and Arrows ("When France chides you for appeasement, you know you're scraping bottom." --Charles Krauthammer)
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To: Slings and Arrows

None that I’m aware of...

To this day I can’t listen to Clinton’s “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” by Fleetwood Mac. It set the stage for the platitudes that infected this last election.


15 posted on 10/24/2009 4:47:45 AM PDT by Loud Mime (The time to water the tree of liberty approaches......)
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To: Slings and Arrows

I have always felt that earworms are caused by the link between music and emotions.

A song triggers an emotional response and your mind keeps repeating it to continue creating that response.

I have always found strong emotions can eliminate earworms more effectively than logic. I think this is why other songs can get you on another emotional path,, eliminating the earworm, but potentially replacing it with another.


16 posted on 10/24/2009 4:48:13 AM PDT by Erik Latranyi (Too many conservatives urge retreat when the war of politics doesn't go their way.)
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To: roamer_1
The only problem is... *nothing* gets the theme song to “Flipper” out of your head.

o/~ In the year 2525... ~\o

17 posted on 10/24/2009 4:48:17 AM PDT by Slings and Arrows ("When France chides you for appeasement, you know you're scraping bottom." --Charles Krauthammer)
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To: Slings and Arrows

You went back to Ohio?


18 posted on 10/24/2009 4:54:37 AM PDT by cripplecreek (Seniors, the new shovel ready project under socialized medicine.)
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To: Slings and Arrows
You are evil but the song that's stuck in my head lately is Soft Kitty from The Big Bang Theory.

The only way to get it out of my head is to hum the theme from Bonanza.

The only way to get that out of my head is to whistle the theme from The Andy Griffith Show.

The only way to get that out of my head is to sing You Spin Me Right 'Round.....

19 posted on 10/24/2009 4:55:02 AM PDT by LoveUSA (When you find yourself hopelessly naked in front of the world, you might as well dance.)
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To: Slings and Arrows

Everytime I open my garage door the theme music from Sanford and son starts running in my head.


20 posted on 10/24/2009 4:57:37 AM PDT by cripplecreek (Seniors, the new shovel ready project under socialized medicine.)
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To: BunnySlippers

Are you certain that its not Conway Twitties version?


21 posted on 10/24/2009 5:00:34 AM PDT by Buffalo Head (Illigitimi non carborundum)
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To: Slings and Arrows

There is nothing unusual about having instrumental music playing in your head if you listen to classical a lot. Sometimes I can mentally go through a whole movement of a symphony or concerto without being able to place it. Usually it’s Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Schubert, or Mahler.


22 posted on 10/24/2009 5:02:20 AM PDT by proxy_user
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To: gattaca

“We are Family,” by Sister Sludge?
“What is Hip,” by Flower of Power?


23 posted on 10/24/2009 5:02:52 AM PDT by Fester Chugabrew
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To: Slings and Arrows

I know that Mambo number 5 used to play every morning on my transit to work. I opened my morning Cardiac cases with the tune stuck in my head over and over. Worse yet, if I hummed the tune Anesthesia, Perfusion, and my scrub nurse would also have the tune stuck in their head. We cursed the song every morning until the local DJ made a format change on our request.


24 posted on 10/24/2009 5:08:07 AM PDT by armymarinemom (My sons freed Iraqi and Afghan Honor Roll students.)
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To: roamer_1
The only problem is... *nothing* gets the theme song to “Flipper” out of your head.

If you ever see a rerun of that old Patty Duke Show coming on, run, don't walk, to hit the mute button.

I-den-ti-cal COUSINS... they're two of a KIND!

A local digital station has been showing reruns of this, this ... thing, and it comes on at 6:00 AM. Made the mistake of turning the tv on while I was getting ready for work, and have been hounded by that grating nonsense ever since.

25 posted on 10/24/2009 5:08:38 AM PDT by RegulatorCountry
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To: Slings and Arrows

Rush Hudson Limbaugh mmm!


26 posted on 10/24/2009 5:10:57 AM PDT by trustandobey (GOD BLESS AMERICA AGAIN!)
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To: cripplecreek

Not unless extradited.


27 posted on 10/24/2009 5:21:51 AM PDT by Slings and Arrows ("When France chides you for appeasement, you know you're scraping bottom." --Charles Krauthammer)
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To: BunnySlippers

Mohhhhna Lisa, men have named you....


28 posted on 10/24/2009 5:22:54 AM PDT by Vendome (Don't take life so seriously... You'll never live through it.)
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To: roamer_1

Try Green Acres, or Gilligan’s Isle.


29 posted on 10/24/2009 5:23:25 AM PDT by stumptalker
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To: Slings and Arrows
While watching the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" many years ago, I caught a snippet of classical music in the "Sea of Monsters" portion, and I could not get it out of my head. Subsequently I would hear the same piece here and there, and always wondered what in the heck it was (my knowledge of classical music is abysmal, even though I often enjoy listening to it). I was a lowbrow with a symphony orchestra earworm.

(It was - and is - Bach's "Air on a G String," a title which I initially thought was hilarious. Once a lowbrow...)

30 posted on 10/24/2009 5:24:16 AM PDT by niteowl77 (You wanted him, and now you have got him. I say, "Good day to you," America.)
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To: Loud Mime

Mmmmm. mmmmm. mmmmm.


31 posted on 10/24/2009 5:24:37 AM PDT by netmilsmom (Psalm 109:8 - Let his days be few; and let another take his office)
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To: cripplecreek

>>Its a sound track.<<

that’s the way I think of it!!!!


32 posted on 10/24/2009 5:26:36 AM PDT by netmilsmom (Psalm 109:8 - Let his days be few; and let another take his office)
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To: armymarinemom

I would post the lyrics, but that wouldn’t be fair to your patients.


33 posted on 10/24/2009 5:26:49 AM PDT by Slings and Arrows ("When France chides you for appeasement, you know you're scraping bottom." --Charles Krauthammer)
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To: Slings and Arrows
Mamas & Papas "Dancing Bear" (for the last week or so). It features Jill Gibson who had replaced Michelle on some of the tracks of their 2nd album after Michelle was (briefly) fired from group.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xKyQyY220U

34 posted on 10/24/2009 5:30:42 AM PDT by newfreep ("Liberalism is just Communism sold by the drink." - P.J. O'Rourke)
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To: BunnySlippers

When I was little, Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” was - seemingly - being played constantly on one of the radio stations my aunt listened to while she was in the kitchen. The first time I heard Brian Setzer’s version of the song, I was aghast, but now I like ‘em both. Potential alternating earworms.


35 posted on 10/24/2009 5:32:31 AM PDT by niteowl77 (You wanted him, and now you have got him. I say, "Good day to you," America.)
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To: niteowl77

I fell asleep once listening to Pink Floyd-The Wall and had it on repeat. Woke up with Comfortably Numb stuck in my head for a couple days.


36 posted on 10/24/2009 5:34:52 AM PDT by BOBWADE
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To: Slings and Arrows
I have a seven and a four year old. They are Indiana Jones fans. All day, every day, for the last month (since they got their Didjes (look it up)) I have had the theme song from Indiana Jones in my head. They hum it. Sing it. Yell it. It's on the Didj (look it up). Even right now, in the other room, the theme song from Indiana Jones is on.
37 posted on 10/24/2009 5:37:56 AM PDT by raybbr (It's going to get a lot worse now that the anchor babies are voting!)
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To: BOBWADE
Some of Pink Floyd's stuff is first-class earworm material, but for me it is usually not the vocals.

(It is often Gilmour's guitar work.)

An audio equipment outfit in Des Moines used to use bits of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" for its radio ads, and I could NOT shake that for the longest time.

38 posted on 10/24/2009 5:45:47 AM PDT by niteowl77 (You wanted him, and now you have got him. I say, "Good day to you," America.)
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To: Loud Mime
Thank God that empty suit Obama didn’t have a campaign song.

mmm mmm mmm ...... Barack Hussein Obama

39 posted on 10/24/2009 5:58:45 AM PDT by paltz
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Comment #40 Removed by Moderator

To: Slings and Arrows
Christmas Wrapping - The Waitresses
41 posted on 10/24/2009 6:00:39 AM PDT by Dysart
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To: proxy_user

“There is nothing unusual about having instrumental music playing in your head if you listen to classical a lot.”

This is the solution to low-brow earworms, fer sher. ;^)

Actually, I consider this feature a dividend of listening to the classical composers; one can call up movements and solos, and vary the orchestrations - it’s never boring.

Otoh, Bobby Goldsboro singing something in your head can be a near-death experience! But, merely summon the shades of Vivaldi, Bach, and Beethoven, and the screeching hyenas vanish.

It works for me.


42 posted on 10/24/2009 6:03:08 AM PDT by headsonpikes (Genocide is the highest sacrament of socialism - "Who-whom?")
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To: niteowl77; Vendome

I was reading about Nat King Cole recently. Apparently he used to smoke a couple of cigarettes before recording a song. It gave his voice his signature smooth gravely affect.

Sadly, he died young of lung cancer.


43 posted on 10/24/2009 6:03:15 AM PDT by BunnySlippers (I LOVE BULL MARKETS . . .)
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To: Slings and Arrows
We called them "sticky songs."

Like this one:

Feliz Navidad
Feliz Navidad
Feliz Navidad
Prospero Ano
y Felicidad

44 posted on 10/24/2009 6:03:45 AM PDT by paulycy (Predatory Pricing = Public Option = Unethical Competition.)
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To: headsonpikes

In popular music, I am more likely to hear Paul Simon, Graham Parker, or the Byrds.


45 posted on 10/24/2009 6:09:06 AM PDT by proxy_user
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To: Slings and Arrows

Current ear worm : Through Glass, by Stone Sour. :-( Oh, how I loathe ear worms. Thank God I’ve never had one for 27 years-can’t begin to imagine-!


46 posted on 10/24/2009 6:16:20 AM PDT by kaylar
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To: netmilsmom; paltz

That was post-campaign. It is a hymn to the new embodiment of the violation of the First Commandment.


47 posted on 10/24/2009 6:16:41 AM PDT by Loud Mime (The time to water the tree of liberty approaches......)
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To: Loud Mime

>>It is a hymn to the new embodiment of the violation of the First Commandment.<<

LOLOLOL!

Spot on!


48 posted on 10/24/2009 6:21:33 AM PDT by netmilsmom (Psalm 109:8 - Let his days be few; and let another take his office)
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To: Slings and Arrows

What really bothers me is when I get a commercial jingle stuck in my head...especially if the commercial is for something I don’t like.


49 posted on 10/24/2009 6:21:43 AM PDT by capt. norm (Never underestimate the power of very stupid people in large groups.)
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To: Gaffer
The film is Rome Adventure (1962) and the song is "Aldilà" by Emilio Pericoli. This great love song is my second favorite tune of the 1960's, after Dave Dudley's "Six Days on the Road," from 1963.
50 posted on 10/24/2009 6:34:08 AM PDT by Fiji Hill
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