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Why Some Songs Get Stuck in Our Brains

Do you have a song stuck in your head right now? It repeats itself over and over…and over. If you’re a parent, there are definitely a few tunes that can send you nearly over the edge. Baby Shark, anyone?

Or maybe you went grocery shopping and spent the rest of the day with a snippet of Karma Chameleon relentlessly playing in a loop through your head. There are a ton of songs out there that plague people’s minds every day.

But why? What is it about our brain that holds on to a piece of music and cycles it on repeat? We looked into the research to find out.

Almost Everyone Experiences the Phenomenon

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If you’ve experienced songs on repeat, you’re part of the large majority. According to the Harvard Gazette, surveys show that 90% of respondents experience the phenomenon. Another study showed as many as 97% of students experienced songs on repeat in the past month!

There Is a Name for It

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The term comes from the German word ‘öhrwurm’, translated to English as ‘earworm,’ meaning musical itch. In 1979, psychiatrist Cornelius Eckert used the phrase to describe the experience of a looped segment of music or lyrics that comes to your awareness and plays on repeat. Often all day. Like the Spongebob theme song.

The Earworm Lasts a Certain Length of Time

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Psychiatrist Cornelius Eckert discovered that the earworm lasts an average of 20 seconds. Imagine Baby Shark playing on repeat every 20 seconds! You’re welcome.

Certain Characteristics Cause the Earworm

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Not every song becomes an earworm. Songs with simpler and faster melodies tend to worm their way into your mind. Also, songs with a connection to a memory also play on repeat. Think about songs that take you back to high school dances and enjoy the musical walk down memory lane.

Earworms Are Involuntary

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Earworms are known in the scientific community as IMI or ‘involuntary musical imagery' because the tunes find their way into our present memory both uninvited and without warning. Consider your next earworm as musical imagery. Beautiful!

The Emotional Connection

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Music is clearly connected to the emotional areas of the human brain, including the amygdala and the ventral striatum. These regions are associated with positive and negative emotions. When the connections in these areas get “stuck,” auto-play occurs, creating the earworm.

Mental Health Can Play a Role

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According to the Harvard Gazette, people who experience challenges with their working memory, like those with ADHD, may not experience earworms as much as others, while people living with obsessive-compulsive disorders may be more likely to experience earworms.

Emotional and Physical State Can Play a Role as Well

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Earworms are more likely to slither into your brain when you’re tired, stressed, or overworked. This may contribute to the high number of students who experienced earworms! To reduce the frequency of musical visitors, get rest and look after your wellbeing.

Not All Earworms Are Benign

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A form of epilepsy known as palinacousis causes songs to continue long after it has ended. Persistent earworms that last for more than 24 hours may be caused by an illness, including stroke or certain cancers. Your doctor can help determine if there is a medical cause.

Earworms May Have Originated Before Words

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Music is universal across cultures. Before the written word, sounds and pitch were used as a means of communicating. The notes and repetitive sounds paired with spoken words were used as a means to remember and pass down cultural history. Our brains have developed to now associate sounds and music to recall words.

The Best Songs Aren’t Necessarily Earworms

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Though the song may be a hit, it’s not necessarily the best song. Songs that seem to play on repeat through the airwaves are ones more likely to fit the melodic contour of earworms but may lack the creative writing of music and lyrics. Think of classical and orchestral music – incredible works of art, but not an earworm on the radio.

From IMI to TOT

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We mentioned Involuntary Music Imagery, but you’ve probably experienced ‘Tip of the Tongue' syndrome as well. TOT occurs when you know something but can’t quite recall it. It's there, waiting on the tip of your tongue. The more you try to recall the detail, the more your brain resists the effort. It feels almost like the opposite of an earworm.

Music Before Bed Can Be Disruptive

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Many people listen to music as a way to help them drift into dreamland, but your brain is processing the music long after you’ve fallen asleep. Listening to catchy tunes and upbeat songs before sleep can create earworms that will impact your sleep and welcome you in the morning.

The Top 10 Earworms

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Researcher Bede Williams studied what makes a song catchy and discovered it must possess five key elements: rhythmic repetition, predictability, surprise, melodic potency, and receptiveness (how the listener feels about the song). According to her 2016 study, the top ten earworms are: 

10. Baha Men – ‘Who Let The Dogs Out?’
9. James Pierpoint – ‘Jingle Bells’
8. Bon Jovi – ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’
7. Europe – ‘The Final Countdown’
6. Queen – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
5. The Village People – ‘YMCA’
4. The Proclaimers – ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’
3. Queen – ‘We Are The Champions’
2. Pharrell Williams – ‘Happy’
1. Queen – ‘We Will Rock You’

Other lists include earworms such as “Gangnam Style” by Psy, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” by Kylie Minogue, and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins.

You Can Make It Stop

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To make the earworm stop with the incessant song, you need to actively engage another part of your brain that will essentially distract you from the repetitive music. You can also practice mindfulness by letting it run its course and paying little attention. Or, play a different song and replace the earworm with new music.

Fascinating Brain Facts for Your Next Trivia Night

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Your brain is capable of both incredible feats of memory and cognitive processing and also of tricking you with optical illusions or making you forget where you left your keys.

Author: Todd Rowley

Title: Copywriter

Expertise: social services, transportation, mental health

Todd Rowley is a copywriter and content writer. He’s an unabashed introvert, an only child with a curious spirit, and a lover of the Oxford comma. Originally educated as a Child and Youth Worker - spending more than 25 years in the field - he also dabbled in Religious Education and Communications Studies.