Earworm songs

That’s what we say when earworm songs are coming back in our mind: “I don’t want to hear it! I mean it, don’t say it! Don’t, please!!”

But it’s too late. My best friend just shared the song that’s been stuck in his head. He even sang a few verses of the song, while I held my fists against my ears.

I was trying to write a poem and his song bombarded my head, opening a little door and tap dancing in my skull. It happens to all of us, I guess. And it’s not the whole song that gets stuck. It’s usually a few lines, which play over and over and over until I feel like screaming.

The Music, Mind and Brain group at Goldsmiths of the University of London report that 90% of people encounter this problem at least once a week! They’re called earworm songs or just earworms, or melodies that get stuck in your head, and the good news is, you can get rid of them. You just have to know the magic ingredient to abolish this menace.

Kelly Jakubowski of the Earworm Project says,

Music lovers, or those who spend more time listening and appreciating music have more frequent and longer earworm episodes.

What’s going on up there?

There’s no better person to help us understand this quirk than Dr. Earworm himself. Of course, that’s just his nickname, but according to those who are familiar with his studies, it’s appropriate. James Kellaris (Dr. Earworm) is a Marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati, who first earned his experience as a professional musician for commercial marketing research. Now his history, you might say is why he contracted a rather nasty bout of the “Earworm” from time to time.

It didn’t take Dr. Earworm long to discover that only a part of the tune seemed to replay itself involuntarily. It’s called involuntary musical imagery (INMI). But he wasn’t alone in his curiosity. Postdoctoral researcher with the Earworm Project, Nicolas Farrugia reported that the auditory and inhibitory-related regions play a role in earworm songs too. This called for a study to help understand more.

So let the torture begin

The selected participants had to be test subjects from a past neuroimaging study of Cambridge Medical Research Councils Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. These 44 individuals, between the ages of 23 and 70 years of age, were given a survey about how INMI’s affected them, and whether in a positive or negative manner, during life activities.

The test results revealed that those who had more earworm episodes had a thinner right frontal lobe. This area of the brain is associated with inhibition. The participants also exhibited a thinner temporal cortex, which processes sound. In turn, these individuals were not as good at suppressing the earworm.

So, what else do we know?

We know that catchy songs are more likely to become earworms, and earworm songs are more likely to occur when we listen to lots of music or feel overly stressed. We also experience earworms more often when we are bored or tired.

Oh, but It’s the times when I cannot escape even through diversion. Sometimes it takes a serious act of intervention to remove that tune. I wonder why it works like that.

Killing the earworm

Some people have songs stuck in their heads for years. One person reportedly had an earworm since 1978. This type of intrusion affected all areas of his life and was considered a musical obsession or intrusive musical image (IMI).

Kellaris’ research on this topic involved mailing a questionnaire to 1,000 respondents at Universities. He wanted to know the frequency and how long the earworms last. He also wanted to understand how the earworm songs made the subject feel. In the case of having an earworm for decades, it seemed that drastic measures were needed.

But it’s not as complicated as it seems! Extensive research discovered two simple remedies for persistent earworms.

One solution was to distract the mind by singing parts of a different song. This seemed to help those who had moderate earworms.

As for those with earworms lasting for many years, they were told to learn the lyrics of the entire song and sing. It seems that when the entire song is completed within the mind, the earworm disappears. It’s like an act of completion. There are other ways to kill the earworm, such as singing the song out loud or changing basic aspects of the melody or words.

As for me, I think a simple diversion will rid me of that horrid melody my best friend implanted into my brain. After learning the root of the problem and how to combat the dreaded earworm, I think I’m ready for the next time he gets all happy and barges into my sacred space.

“Bring it on! No matter what song you sing, I can send it away! No! Not that one! I hate that song!”

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Sherrie is a freelance writer and artist with over 10 years of experience. She spends most of her time giving life to the renegade thoughts. As the words erupt and form new life, she knows that she is yet again free from the nagging persistence of her muse. She is a mother of three and a lifetime fan of the thought-provoking and questionable aspects of the universe.