Skip to comments.Why do songs get stuck in your head?
Posted on 10/24/2009 4:34:36 AM PDT by Slings and Arrows
October 16, 2009
Whats the deal with getting a song stuck in your head? Why does it happen, especially if its a song you dont like or dont even know well? Yet all you can think about is that stupid tune. Please enlighten me; Im getting really sick of Tainted Love running circles through my brain.
You think youve 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 dont 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. Theyre the most common type of whats 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 arent on drugs or suffering from schizophrenia and thus (b) are fully aware theres 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 whos 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. (Unas 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. Kellariss 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 floors elevator lobby. When you come back hours later and cant remember what floor you parked on, all you have to do is pay attention to the tune thats (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. Thats 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 songs lyrics more than anything else about it. The most loathed tune? No surprise here: Billy Ray Cyruss Achy Breaky Heart.
Maybe just because I’m “Stuck on a Feelin’” “High on Believin”
Thank God that empty suit Obama didn’t have a campaign song.
I’m trying to get Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” out of my head for the last few days.
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!
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.
Its a sound track.
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.
Pretenders, “My City Was Gone”?
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.
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.
o/~ In the year 2525... ~\o
You went back to Ohio?
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.....
Everytime I open my garage door the theme music from Sanford and son starts running in my head.
Are you certain that its not Conway Twitties version?
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.
“We are Family,” by Sister Sludge?
“What is Hip,” by Flower of Power?
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.
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.
Rush Hudson Limbaugh mmm!
Not unless extradited.
Mohhhhna Lisa, men have named you....
Try Green Acres, or Gilligan’s Isle.
(It was - and is - Bach's "Air on a G String," a title which I initially thought was hilarious. Once a lowbrow...)
Mmmmm. mmmmm. mmmmm.
>>Its a sound track.<<
that’s the way I think of it!!!!
I would post the lyrics, but that wouldn’t be fair to your patients.
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.
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.
(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.
mmm mmm mmm ...... Barack Hussein Obama
“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.
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.
Like this one:
In popular music, I am more likely to hear Paul Simon, Graham Parker, or the Byrds.
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-!
That was post-campaign. It is a hymn to the new embodiment of the violation of the First Commandment.
>>It is a hymn to the new embodiment of the violation of the First Commandment.<<
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.
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