Earworms can be simply defined as a short section of music that comes into your mind without effort and then repeats itself. It implies the effortlessness in which a fragment of a song, arriving in the inner ear without conscious effort, can continually loop and stick around. In other words, it’s a term for the song stuck in your head.
No doubt you have experienced it; but how do we get them? Or perhaps more importantly, how do we get rid of them? What do they really mean for our brains and our behaviour? Recently many researchers have been delving into earworms and below are just some of the answers that are uncovering.
One qualitative study of both BBC 6 listeners and using an online survey found four broad categories of initiators to earworms: recent exposure to the music, memory triggers (including word / sensory associations, recollection of past and anticipation of future event), affective states (mood, stress, surprise) and low attention states, similar to conditions to mind wandering.
Which explains why at night, whilst recollecting about what I’ve done that day and doing mindless chores at home, the chorus of ‘Hello’ by Adelle starts to play in my mind.
Contrary to what you might think, most people report earworms as either neutral or positive experiences – perhaps even helping in completing day-to-day activities. Researchers have even found the tempo of our earworms are surprisingly accurate (within 10.8% of actual tempo of song), regardless of how recently we heard the song that is now stuck in our head.
But if you do want to get rid of an earworm, then one of the easiest methods includes chewing gum. This is effective because during musical imagery we are most likely ‘feeling the noise’; simulating in our sensorimotor regions what we are imaging. So by engaging our motor system by chewing gum, we interrupt this network thereby reducing or eradicating the earworm.
Speaking of brains, a recent study has also shown for the first time, differences in brains of people who report more frequent earworms. Reduced thickness of the cortex was found in areas known to be active during both music perception, memory and in mind wandering. One possible explanation of this is that those with frequent earworms have less ability to inhibit the earworms from surfacing.
Surprisingly though, it doesn’t seem to be the case that getting frequent earworms makes you more accurate at imaging music. When participants with high vs low frequency earworms listened to familiar pop songs that were then muted, and needed to be mentally continued, there was no difference in their performance at judging the fit of the music as it re-entered in terms of pitch (in tune or flat / sharp) and timing (on time or too soon / too late).
So what does all this mean? Quite simply, next time a catchy tune gets stuck in your head and you want it gone – reach for a stick of gum, otherwise simply groove along and let your inner ear provide you a soundtrack for the mundane task you are doing, and marvel at your wondrous brain that makes it possible.
Rebecca Gelding is a part-time PhD Student in Cognitive Science at Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia), using brain imaging to study musical imagery.
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Beaman, C. P., Powell, K., & Rapley, E. (2015). Want to block earworms from conscious awareness?B(u)y gum! The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68(6), 1049-1057. doi:10.1080/17470218.2015.1034142
Farrugia, N., Jakubowski, K., Cusack, R., & Stewart, L. (2015). Tunes stuck in your brain: The frequency and affective evaluation of involuntary musical imagery correlate with cortical structure. Consciousness and Cognition, 35(0), 66-77. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2015.04.020
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