Can’t Get You Out of My Head: Why Songs Get Lodged in Our Brains

Image shows the back of a man's head wearing headphones as he listens to music to illustrate songs getting stuck in people's heads or the phenomenon known as earworms.

Do you have a song stuck in your head right now? I’m sorry to have to break it to you like this, but those symptoms indicate that a worm has taken up residence in your brain. Thankfully, this isn’t a live parasite but a metaphor used to describe the phenomenon of ‘earworms’.

Earworms are catchy tunes that involuntarily get lodged in your noggin and wriggle about in there, sometimes for hours on end. Typically, this is just a snippet of chorus or a melodic line that takes over our mind when we’re relaxed, but they can be endlessly frustrating to experience. Anyone who has had their brain subject them to non-stop rounds of ‘Baby Shark’ can attest to this.

According to some estimates, 98% of people have had an earworm at some point. Music researchers have been exploring the secrets behind this ‘involuntary musical imagery’ for years, with much of the focus being on the tempo and pitch of these catchy tunes.

However, Australian researchers at UNSW believe they may have finally cracked the code as to what makes our brains more likely to latch onto some songs more than others.

“Drawing together the literature, it appears there’s an essential characteristic necessary for a song to roll out the earworms – the music itself must have some repetition in it,” explained Professor Emery Schubert, author of a new study from the Empirical Musicology Laboratory in the School of the Arts & Media.

Previous research on songs that are most likely to become earworms feature tracks like ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen, ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams, and ‘YMCA’ by The Village People. What do all of these tracks have in common? Tonnes of repetition.

“Most research on earworms to date analyses what’s in the hook – the short riff or passage to catch the ear of the listener,” Schubert said.

“But what hasn’t been considered is that the hook is invariably repeated in the music, most commonly in the chorus.

“The implication is that earworms might not have anything to do with the musical features at all. It largely doesn’t matter what the music is, as long as repetition is part of the music structure.”

But why do we get earworms in the first place? The study found that several preconditions need to be met, including recency and familiarity with the music. In addition, we need to be in a “low-attentional state,” which is a fancy way of saying we’re relaxed and not too focused on anything else. This makes it easier for our minds to wander and get stuck on a repeated fragment of music.

“It’s sometimes referred to as mind wandering, which is a state of relaxation. In other words, if you’re deeply engaged with the environment you are in, really concentrating on a task, then you won’t get an earworm,” Schubert says.

“Inside your relaxed mind, you don’t have to follow the exact structure of the music. Your mind is free to wander wherever it likes, and the easiest place to go is the repeated fragment and to simply repeat it.”

While earworms can be annoying at times, many people actually find them enjoyable. “It’s a bit of a misconception that they’re a problem,” said Schubert. “We’re starting to see more research suggesting many find getting an earworm to be quite pleasant.”

For those hoping to banish an unwelcome earworm, the study offers a few suggestions. “You may be able to wrap up an earworm by either finishing off the music, consciously thinking of another piece of music, or by removing yourself from the triggers, such as words or memories that relate to the music or lyrics,” said Schubert.

The study offers fascinating insights into how our brains process and recall music. As Schubert notes, “There are still several puzzles we need to solve to understand not only their nature but what it might mean for cognition and memory.”

Related: Everything You Need to Know About the Music of ‘Daisy Jones and The Six’

Related: Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again? Why Live Music Is Becoming Almost Too Pricey to Watch

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