Earworms: The Melodic Parasite in Our Brains

While most people find earworms—unwanted catchy tunes that repeat in your head—annoying, they can actually be positive signs of cognitive activity.

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By Iris Lin

Do you ever find yourself struggling to focus during a test because a song is stuck in your head? Whether it’s a boppy song like “Levitating” by Dua Lipa Feat. DaBaby or an annoying but catchy tune like “Friday” by Rebecca Black, it is bound to get on your nerves eventually. This is a common issue that up to 98 percent of people experience, called earworms. While two-thirds of people find that earworms provoke neutral or positive emotions, the remaining third find it disturbing when these songs wriggle their way into one’s brain and threaten their clarity of thoughts. If you are one of these people, do not fret. There are methods to disinfect your brain from these worms.

For a song to get stuck in your head, earworms rely on brain networks involved in perception, emotion, memory, and spontaneous thought. Certain mental states make you more susceptible to earworms. They are generally triggered when you hear the song itself, are in a happy state of being, or are in an inattentive state. They may also show up when you are stressed out as your brain latches onto a repetitive idea and sticks with it under those conditions. Additionally, certain personality features may predispose you to be caught vulnerable by a catchy tune. Those who are obsessive-compulsive or neurotic, or those who often feel anxious, self-conscious, and vulnerable, are more likely to fall prey to an earworm. Additionally, those with a musical background or who are open to new experiences are more prone to catching an earworm.

If you do get an earworm, it is hopefully not a terribly annoying one. However, some songs are scientifically more catchy than others and are thus more likely to repeat in your head. Music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski and her colleagues studied the reason behind this and found that catchier songs are faster and simpler in melodic contour, as the way in which pitch rises and falls makes them easier to sing. Moreover, catchier music tends to have unique bridges between notes that make the song stand out. Some examples of these tunes are “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” (somewhat ironically) by Kylie Minogue, and “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey.

Despite the distraction that earworms cause, they can actually be beneficial. Unlike your daily speech, music typically has repetition. Though repetition of speech is associated with regression and childishness, musical repetition is a process that becomes pleasurable when it is understood through such repetition. Each time music repeats, you notice something subtly different in the notes, scale, or harmonies, which may constitute one of the positive aspects of earworms. Furthermore, earworms are a form of spontaneous mental activity, and this mind-wandering state grants various advantages to the brain, actually contributing to, rather than detracting from, clear thinking and creativity.

While earworms are usually not worrisome, they may sometimes occur as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychotic syndromes, migraine headaches, unusual forms of epilepsy, or palinacousis, a condition where you continue to hear a sound long after it has disappeared. If the earworm lasts more than 24 hours, it may be caused by a variety of illnesses, including stroke or cancer metastasizing to the brain. In this case, it would be recommended to see your physician.

While earworms are usually benign, many people seek methods to rid their brains of them. Fortunately, there are numerous ways to do so. Contrary to instinctual behavior, try to passively accept the song rather than block it out. A determined effort to block out the song may result in the very opposite of what you want, since resisting the song may make our brain repeat it longer. Another successful method is to distract yourself from the song with other “cure” tunes which interfere with the experience of the earworm but do not have the characteristics of an earworm. Chewing gum may also help, as it interferes with hearing the song in your head. For those who are extremely distressed by earworms, other techniques include cognitive behavioral therapy to replace dysfunctional thoughts like, “These earworms indicate that I am crazy” with, “It is normal to have earworms.” In severe cases, a physician may prescribe antidepressants.

Though they’re annoying, earworms may be a part of your brain’s creative process. So the next time you have a song stuck in your head during a test, don’t try to force it out as a sign that something is wrong. Instead, take it as a positive sign that the gears in your brain are working properly.