For a couple months leading up to Christmas, and all this week, we’re all infected with a pernicious scourge: earworms. Sounds like a bloodsucking parasite, but “earworm” is just a psychological term for a song that you can’t get out of your head. During this time of year you can take your pick of earworms, wheedling their way into your brain in every public place you go.
Even though earworms are common to us all, there’s been surprisingly little research done about why certain songs become lodged in our noggins. One researcher at the University of Cincinnati, James Kellaris, has launched a website devoted to deconstructing the earworm phenomenon (earning him the nickname, “Dr. Earworm”).
One interesting thing Kellaris says about earworms is that we think we are “hearing” the song play over and over in our heads, but an earworm is not actually heard, but rather rehearsed mentally. Also, although many earworms seem to share some common traits (e.g., simplicity, repetitiveness, unexpected twists or ‘hooks’, etc), virtually any song can become an earworm for some people. And some people are just more prone to earworms than others.
Why are we plagued by earworms? Nobody knows for sure, but the Bristish Psychological Society research blog reports that a new study gets us closer to a few answers. Psychologists surveyed just over one hundred railway travellers, students and visitors to a public garden about their earworm experiences, and they also asked 12 other participants to keep diary records for four weeks about their earworms.
They found that people who judge music to be important are more likely to get a song stuck in their head–but having musical expertise does not make getting an earworm more likely. They also found that, contrary to popular belief that earworms are always unwanted, only a minority of earworms (33 percent in the diary study) were described by study participants as unpleasant or undesired.
Very few earworms recurred in the same day and most were usually gone by the next day. However, earworms did seem similar to intrusive thoughts in relation to attempts to banish them. Participants reported that most strategies, such as trying to think of another song, actually made the original earworm worse.
The researchers also looked at the typical length of earworm episodes. Approximately 27 minutes was the verdict from the diary study, and several hours was the survey result.
Finally, what about the idea that some specific songs are more prone to becoming earworms than others? The researchers found little evidence for this. Different participants named and shamed different earworm songs and each individual participant tended to report a range of different songs, rather than pointing to repeat offending by the same recalcitrant tune. Instead, earworm potential appeared to be determined by amount of exposure to a tune combined with that tune’s relative simplicity and repetitiveness.
Probably the most telling result of the study is that the more we fight an earworm, the harder it is to jettison. That’s consistent with many other studies that have found resistance to any recurring thought only makes it harder to stop thinking it.
According to a survey conducted by Dr. Earworm, below are the top 10 most common earworm songs. Shockingly, no Christmas tunes are on it.
- “Other” (does anyone know this song??)
- Chili’s (Baby Back Ribs)
- Who Let the Dogs Out?
- We Will Rock You
- Kit-Kat bar jingle
- Mission Impossible Theme
- Whoomp, There It Is!
- The Lion Sleeps Tonight
- It’s a Small World After All
What songs or jingles would you add?
Oh, and Merry Christmas!