Earworms: Those songs that get stuck in your head
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Why Is That Song Stuck In My Head?
I’m sure more than once and at some point in your life, you have experienced the mystery of an “Earworm”. But what is an Earworm? An Earworm is basically a little, short musical idea or a snippet of a song that plays in your head over an over. Sometimes that song can be stuck in your head for a while, sometimes for a few hours, but in some cases you could be singing the same song for days! AHHHH! I know, it drives us crazy at times, but what is the reasoning behind it? what makes an Earworm so incredibly sticky into our minds, into our lips and into our daily moments while on “automatic pilot mode”? is it the lyrics? is it the harmony? is it that the song is just catchy? or is it the combination of different elements working together at a specific point in space and time causing an extraordinary reaction in our body and mind?
Up to this day, scientist are still studying this cognitive phenomenon and finding both an explanation as well as a cure. Some researchers say it is psychological and that they are directly related to our memory function. Many believe that by studying and understanding the behavior of Earworms in our heads, we’ll get to discover the automaticity of musical memory and its power as a tool for learning.
A few days ago on a phone call with my brother he told me out of nowhere, “I’m going crazy!, I’ve been singing this song Non-stop and I couldn’t even sleep last night of how many times I kept hearing it in my head”. So I laughed and asked him what song that was? He said “I’ll tell you, but please don’t sing it to me!”, so I laughed again and as soon as he told me what song that was I couldn’t resist, so I sang the song… The song was “Linger” by the Cranberries, if you haven’t heard the song, go listen to it. Yes, it’s pretty catchy, but without asking my brother what part was he singing over and over, I already knew what part was causing the Earworm, it had to be the part in the Chorus that goes “Do you have to? Do you have to? Do you have to let it Linger?…” So go ahead, listen to the song and see if that generates an Earworm on you.
Chances are you will hear many songs in your lifetime that will give you these called “Earworms” but just as you get these, keep in mind that they work as viruses. Once you get one, there are ways to cure it, and most likely you won’t get the same virus again, so keep your ears open and enjoy the joy of catchy music. After all, music itself is the cure for many other things in life!
Please take the time to watch this fantastic video from TED Ed by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, narrated by Addison Anderson, scored by Cem Misirlioglu and animated by Artrake Studio, which explains in a very clever and charming way, the truth and mystery of an Earworm, and what can we learn from its effect on our brain.
You can find the transcription below the video.
Have you ever been waiting in line at the grocery store, innocently perusing the magazine rack, when a song pops into your head?
Not the whole song, but a fragment of it that plays and replays until you find yourself unloading the vegetables in time to the beat. You’ve been struck by an earworm, and you’re not alone. Over 90% of people are plagued by earworms at least once a week, and about a quarter of people experience them several times a day. They tend to burrow in during tasks that don’t require much attention, say, when waiting on water to boil, or a traffic light to change. This phenomenon is one of the mind’s great mysteries.
Scientists don’t know exactly why it’s so easy for tunes to get stuck in our heads. From a psychological perspective, earworms are an example of mental imagery. This imagery can be visual, like when you close your eyes and imagine a red wagon, or it can be auditory, like when you imagine the sound of a baby screaming, or oil sizzling in a pan. Earworms are a special form of auditory imagery because they’re involuntary. You don’t plug your ears and try to imagine “Who Let the Dogs Out,” or, well, you probably don’t.
It just intrudes onto your mental soundscape and hangs around like an unwanted house guest. Earworms tend to be quite vivid and they’re normally made up of a tune, rather than, say, harmonies. A remarkable feature of earworms is their tendency to get stuck in a loop, repeating again and again for minutes or hours. Also remarkable is the role of repetition in sparking earworms.
Songs tend to get stuck when we listen to them recently and repeatedly. If repetition is such a trigger, then perhaps we can blame our earworms on modern technology. The last hundred years have seen an incredible proliferation of devices that help you listen to the same thing again and again. Records, cassettes, CDs, or streamed audio files. Have these technologies bred some kind of unique, contemporary experience, and are earworms just a product of the late 20th century?
The answer comes from an unlikely source: Mark Twain. In 1876, just one year before the phonograph was invented, he wrote a short story imagining a sinister takeover of an entire town by a rhyming jingle. This reference, and others, show us that earworms seem to be a basic psychological phenomenon, perhaps exacerbated by recording technology but not new to this century. So yes, every great historical figure, from Shakespeare to Sacajawea, may well have wandered around with a song stuck in their head.
Besides music, it’s hard to think of another case of intrusive imagery that’s so widespread. Why music? Why don’t watercolors get stuck in our heads? Or the taste of cheesy taquitos? One theory has to do with the way music is represented in memory. When we listen to a song we know, we’re constantly hearing forward in time, anticipating the next note. It’s hard for us to think about one particular musical moment in isolation.
If we want to think about the pitch of the word “you” in “Happy Birthday,” we have to start back at “Happy,” and sing through until we get to “you.” In this way, a tune is sort of like a habit. Just like once you start tying your shoe, you’re on automatic until you tighten the bow, once a tune is suggested because, for example, someone says, “my umbrella,” we have to play through until it reaches a natural stopping point, “ella, ella, ella.” But this is a largely speculation.
The basic fact remains we don’t know exactly why we’re susceptible to earworms. But understanding them better could give us important clues
to the workings of the human brain. Maybe the next time we’re plagued by a Taylor Swift tune that just won’t go away, we’ll use it as the starting point for a scientific odyssey that will unlock important mysteries about basic cognition. And if not, well, we can just shake it off.
* Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis is an educator and author of “On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind”. She directs the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas. Her research uses theoretical, behavioral, and neuroimaging methodologies to investigate the dynamic, moment-to-moment experience of listeners without special musical training. She was also trained as a concert pianist.
* TED-Ed is a free educational website for teachers and learners with a commitment to create lessons worth sharing. Their approach to education is an extension of TED’s (Technology, Entertainment and Design) mission of spreading great ideas.
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