We’ve all had that annoying feeling when a certain song or a tune that you like (or one that you absolutely hate!) gets stuck in your head and keeps playing itself repeatedly, almost to the point of driving you crazy.
No matter how hard you try to push it out, it just doesn’t seem to budge. But why does it happen at all? And more importantly, is there anything you can do to make it go away?
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What is an Earworm?
No matter what the name may lead you to believe, an ‘earworm’ is probably the most appropriate term that encapsulates the the irritating feeling of something stuck in your head in a single word. Also referred to as brainworm, an earworm is a small portion of a song or tone that continually repeats itself in one’s mind, even when the song is not playing, or hasn’t been heard for hours. It’s not a conscious choice most of the times, and is usually considered a nuisance. The word ‘earworm’ is inspired from the German word ‘ohrwurm’, which means the same thing.
Which types of songs get stuck in your head?
The answer to this question is a subjective one, and varies greatly from one person to another. Raindrops keep falling on my head may get stuck in your head, whereas Summer of ’69 may play itself repeatedly in your friend’s brain. Also, you’re not the only one with a song stuck in your head; more than 90% of the population experiences this phenomenon. Both men and women experience it equally often, but it is observed that women experience it for slightly longer durations than men.
According to one researcher, James Kellaris, songs with lyrics are more likely to play themselves in a loop inside your head; this happens in almost 74% of the total cases of earworms. Moreover, live music is more likely to get stuck in your head, because your vision stimulation and emotional excitement (due to seeing a beloved band perform live) aids a piece of music in embedding itself in some deep nook in your mind.
The types of songs that get locked in your head depend on your personal memories, musical taste and your own specific experiences associated with that song.
Why do songs get stuck in your head?
Again, there are a number of reasons behind this phenomenon happening at all, and almost all of them are subjective. If you listen to a song far more than you should, then there is a good chance that it is going to get stuck in your head. This actually makes sense, as your brain registers that you like that particular song (since you are playing it repeatedly), and becomes your own little DJ to play it continually in the back of your head!
Certain moods and emotions can also make tones or songs get stuck in your head. For example, if you danced excitedly to a particularly peppy song at a party, chances are that it will continue to get your toes tapping even hours later.
Researchers have also found that a brain which is less busy or occupied with an important task is an easy target for an earworm to strike.
How can you make it go away?
Let me tell you right now, there is no surefire method to make a song stop playing in your head on repeat. Apparently, it’s not that bad, after all. It has been observed that only a quarter of the people who experience an earworm actually find it annoying or particularly care about it being stuck up there.
There are a few techniques to make it go away though. These are broadly classified in two categories: distraction and engagement.
Distraction involves listening to a different piece of music (that may or may not be similar to the earworm music, depending on your musical tastes). There is even an idea of a ‘cure song’, i.e. a song that pushes the earworm out of their head without becoming an earworm itself.
Engagement, on the other hand, is a very interesting way to deal with earworms. This involves listening to the same song completely, or singing along with it, so that the brain ‘completes’ the task that it may have tagged as ‘unfinished business’ when it could not complete the song playing inside it. In simple words, it’s brain’s way of telling the song, ‘Now I know you completely, so you don’t have to bother me anymore.’
There are various other ways to force a song out of your head, like engaging in an activity that requires focused attention (like when solving a difficult problem, a puzzle or Sudoku), and according to a study published in 2015 by the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading, chewing gum can also help to make a stuck song go away.
It seems like a good idea to always keep a puzzle app installed on your smartphone if you are frequently bugged by these snippets of music. At the end of the day though, don’t fret too much about it, an earworm usually goes away all by itself eventually!