November 27, 2022

About the Author: Stefan Joubert

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Why Do Certain Songs Get Stuck in Your Head?

We’ve all been there – politely minding our own business before getting an attack of the earworm! Whether it is a song you love, one you hate, or one that you just happened to hear on the radio, an earworm can be a seriously annoying ailment, as it tends to be made up of just one or two lines of a song on a loop. And no matter what you do, that mind melody just won’t go away! So why do we get these songs stuck in our heads?

man singing with headphones

What Is Involuntary Musical Imagery?

An earworm, or involuntary musical imagery, is when a song, tune, or jingle gets stuck in your head – sometimes just for a few minutes, sometimes for hours on end.

They are a form of spontaneous cognition. This is when our brain has seemingly random, free thoughts that are not obviously initiated by something we are doing at the time. It’s a bit like daydreaming or mental procrastination.

Research shows that spontaneous cognition dominates up to 50% of our waking lives. It is thought to be an important part of the creative process and is actually useful for remembering essential tasks, dates, and events.

However, when it comes to earworms, spontaneous cognition is usually just irritating!

woman listening to music outdoor

What Triggers an Earworm?

Earworms can happen at any place, any time. But there are a few things that might prompt a particular song in your head. Music is closely related to our emotions, so if you have a strong feeling, like sadness or excitement, that can quickly transfer itself to a song that relays the same emotion.

Memories are another trigger. We often relate songs to people, places, and events. When you think about things in the past, and you remember a song from that time, it can become stuck in your head, even if you’ve not heard it for a long time.

However, songs you have heard recently can also bring on involuntary musical imagery. If you’ve just been listening to a catchy song on the radio – watch out! It might soon be on a loop in your head! And if you’re bored, with little else on your mind, then you’ve got no chance of avoiding the earworm!

man listenin got up beat music

What Songs are Most Likely to Become Earworms?

The catchiest songs make the most likely earworms. The most common culprits are melodies that repeat over and over again with a generic, easy-to-remember tune. They all have something that makes them unique without taking away from the repetitive rhythm.

Earworms tend to be faster songs with a similar pitch style. The tune rises and falls and has unusual features such as sudden leaps or unexpected repetition.

Some of the most common earworms are chart hits, most likely because we are likely to hear them on the radio. Songs like Bad Romance by Lady Gaga, Karma Chameleon by Culture Club, and Can’t Get You Out of My Head by Kylie Minogue are top of many earworm lists! Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’ll find a lot of children’s songs on there too. Let It Go from the Frozen soundtrack and It’s a Small World After All are songs that regularly play on a loop in parents’ heads!

man listening music from phone

Can You Get Rid of an Earworm?

Apart from being mildly irritating, earworms are harmless and rarely last too long. But if you really want to try and get rid of that annoying musical loop in your head, there are some things you can try.

The first thing you should do is find the song and play it all the way through. Usually this is enough to break the cycle in your head, so you can get back to living your life without musical distraction!

When that song is finished, listen to lots of different songs. Sometimes, replacing one earworm with another is the only remedy! Even if you have to keep doing this throughout the day, at least you will have a variety of tunes in your head.

Weirdly, chewing gum might help move along that musical monster! The chewing process activates the same area of the brain in which you imagine music. Your gum might be the distraction your brain needs to think about something else!

If none of that works, take solace in the fact that your earworm won’t last forever! And that 98% of the population suffers them from time to time, so you are definitely not alone!

Tags: Music and the environment, vocal tips

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Tags: Music and the environment, vocal tips