What are those darn earworms and how can I get them out of my head??!!

Posted by Curt Kinghorn on Mar 7, 2017 8:54:02 PM

The other day, I got a bit of a Nookey Jones[i] song called Sweet Wine stuck in my head! ThisEarthworm, Worm, Cute, Happy, Inchworm, Smile, Cartoon is a phenomena called an “earworm” or sometimes called a brainworm, sticky music or stuck song syndrome. An earworm is a piece of music that gets stuck in your head and continually repeats even though no music is playing. An earworm was even the basis of an amusing story by Mark Twain!  (A Literary Nightmare (1876))  According to research by James Kellaris (a business professor at the University of Cincinnati!!), 98% of people experience earworms[ii].  In a study presented at the conferences of the Society for Consumer Psychology in 2001 and 2003[iii], Prof. Kellaris also reported that men and women experience earworms about equally often[iv]. But, earworms tend to last longer for women and irritate them more.[v]  Also, musicians are more likely to experience earworms than nonmusicians[vi] and people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are more likely to report being troubled by earworms.[vii]

According to Dan Levitin at McGill University, a piece of the entire song, typically less than or equal in duration to “the capacity of auditory short-term (“echoic“) memory: about 15 to 30 seconds[,]” rather than the entire song gets stuck in your head.[viii] Further, “[s]imple songs and commercial jingles seem to get stuck more often than complex pieces of music.”[ix] Still further, (and thankfully!), earworm occurrence is relatively uncommon and unlikely to persist for more than 24 hours.[x]

Once you get an earworm, how do you get rid of it?? Dr. Ira Hyman at Western Washington University found[xi] that engaging in moderate mental activity that engages working memory (e.g., reading a book, doing Sudoku puzzles or anagrams, particularly those with five letters!) will get rid of the earworm!  Also, try just chewing gum!!  C. Philip Beaman, Kitty Powell and Ellie Rapley at the University of Reading showed[xii] that “interfering with articulatory motor programming by chewing gum reduces both the number of voluntary and the number of involuntary—unwanted—musical thoughts.”  In other words … chew gum, earworm gone!

Neuroscience shows up in a lot of academic and employment disciplines as evidenced by Professors Kellaris and Levitin. Although Prof. Kellaris is currently the James S. Womack/Gemini Corporation Professor of Signage and Visual Marketing (in the business school!) at the University of Cincinnati, he is a former professional musician and current composer of classical chamber music, especially for the mandolin.  He has won several prestigious music competitions, served residencies with large orchestras and has had his music performed worldwide! Professor Levitin earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Oregon and now runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University. Before completing his Bachelor’s Degree at Stanford, for ten years Prof. Levitin was immersed in the music industry as a session musician, recording engineer and record producer, particularly for rock groups including Santana and the Grateful Dead.  He earned 17 gold and platinum albums!  He wrote This Is Your Brain On Music which spent more than a year on the New York Times Bestseller List, has sold more than one million copies and is where I first learned about earworms!  (I highly recommend this book!)

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[i] A R&B/jazz fusion group out of Minneapolis, Minnesota (http://nookyjones.com/)

[ii] Kovler, Jessica (2003, August 12) Researcher confirms existence of 'earworms' / 98% of people have had songs stuck in their head. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Researcher-confirms-existence-of-earworms-98-2561479.php

[iii] Vries, Lloyd (2003, October 20) The wrong song long in your head.  Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-wrong-song-long-in-your-head/

[iv]  Adams, Cecil (2009, October 16) Why do songs get stuck in your head?  Retrieved from http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2901/why-do-songs-get-stuck-in-your-head

[v] Id

[vi] Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York, NY: Dutton, 2016. N. pag. Print. p. 155; see also Beaman, C. Philip, and Tim I. Williams. "Earworms (stuck Song Syndrome): Towards a Natural History of Intrusive Thoughts." British Journal of Psychology 101.4 (2010): 637-53. Web.

[vii] Levitin at 155

[viii] Id

[ix] Id

[x] Beaman and Williams

[xi] Hyman, Ira E., Naomi K. Burland, Hollyann M. Duskin, Megan C. Cook, Christina M. Roy, Jessie C. Mcgrath, and Rebecca F. Roundhill. "Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head." Applied Cognitive Psychology 27.2 (2012): 204-15. Web.

[xii] Beaman, C. Philip, Kitty Powell, and Ellie Rapley. "Want to Block Earworms from Conscious Awareness?B(u)y Gum!" The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 68.6 (2015): 1049-057. Web.

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