Most people hear familiar songs and then get those tunes stuck in their heads for the rest of the day. It’s annoying, but it happens. For me, though, I’ve had moment when someone just mentioned the name of a song or barely hummed a few notes from the chorus, and BAM!!! I’m singing the song for days on end!!!
I keep wondering why this happens to me. Why am I so susceptible to this phenomenon? Others must have the same problem, so I decided to do a little digging and find out why songs get stuck in our heads.
Many Names, Same Issue
All around the world, people call the phenomenon by different names. In her article, “Why Songs Get Stuck in Your Head,” Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis points out that the American term, “earworm,” is by no means original. In fact, it’s a straight translation from the German “Ohrwurm.” In Italian, Margulis explains that they refer to it as “tormenting songs,” (canzone tormentone), and that the French call it “stubborn music” (musique entêtante).
The phenomenon has even made its way from pop-culture slang into academic circles. According to Margulis research, scientists have coined such phrases as “stuck song syndrome,” “brain itch,” “cognitive itch,” “brain idling,” and “sticky music.”
Academic research into this area has not been very extensive, and scientists such as Lassi Liikkanen have advocated for more serious research into the field. Liikkanen refers to the earworm concept as involuntary musical imagery (INMI), and he has published several papers and conducted various studies into what causes INMI.
Although he himself has performed significant research, Liikkanen (2011) has pointed out some of the problems with obtaining usable data. Namely, there is a large margin of difficulty in causing INMI repeatedly enough among subjects to get consistent, comparable, and accurate results.
When and (Possibly) Why it Happens
To determine the when and the why, Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis compares research gathered by Liikkanen as well as from Freya Bailes, a known musicologist. Although Bailes uses a different method for gathering data from her subjects, as compared to Liikkanen, her findings point to some interesting factors.
First of all, her research indicates that a higher majority of participants experience earworms, or what she calls “musical imagery,” during downtime in between tasks. These “filler” moments, as she calls them, occur between tasks or sometimes during repetitive tasks, such as cleaning or driving. Bailes proposes that the brain may be subject to musical imagery during these moments as a way to fill in the gaps and to go into a sort of motorized idle before switching gears to the next task.
More often than not, participants in Bailes study reported that their musical imagery moments typically included repeating a song’s chorus or main melody. Since these parts of the song were the most repeated, Bailes theorizes that the effect of repetitive melodies creates the result of “music on the brain.”
In Liikkanen’s (2011) research, he discusses that one of the leading hypotheses about the causes of INMI/musical imagery is that it occurs most often after individuals have recently heard music. While he does not deny that hearing familiar music may proceed instances of INMI, Liikkanen does not imply that it is a required precondition to experience the phenomenon. If anything, controlled testing situations make the finding more prevalent, since researchers must play the music to see if they can trigger INMI episodes.
Liikkanen’s research did determine that participants were more likely to experience INMI after listening to familiar songs versus new songs. Although, songs with unique rhythm patterns, new or familiar, also had a greater likelihood of triggering INMI. Familiarity with the song was not necessarily a requirement to achieve INMI, per Liikkanen, although it certainly made some participants more susceptible.
Examining the results of previous studies, Liikkanen postulates that one of the reasons why we get songs stuck in our heads could be related to how we learn new information.
Most teaching methodologies promote repetition. Therefore, we’ve been conditioned to go into learning-mode the moment that we hear any repetitive data. Once we achieve learning-mode, whether consciously or otherwise, we keep repeating the information on what feels like an endless loop until one of two things occur:
- Our brains determine that we have sufficiently learned the new data, and our brains stop repeating the loop.
- We deliberately terminate learning-mode by distracting our brains with something completely different.
Are You More Susceptible?
Are people with obsessive or neurotic tendencies more susceptible to earworms?
According to Liikkanen (2008), of the subjects examined in previous INMI studies, it seems that individuals who also had a higher degree of neuroticism were more than likely to be susceptible to INMI. He argues that the brain needs to complete specific patterns, and does so through repetition of the song melodies or rhythms. Neurotic tendencies could explain the need to repeat certain patterns, but since Liikkanen’s research did not focus on neurotic individuals, and nor did he do a comparison of people with high neuroticism versus low neuroticism, it has yet to be definitively proven if neurotic individuals are any more or less susceptible to INMI.
Liikkanen’s research shows that musical and nonmusical individuals are equally as susceptible to getting familiar sounding song lyrics stuck in their minds; however, people with a background in music are twice as likely to have familiar sounding instrumental pieces trigger moments of INMI. While participants from both groups are susceptible to experiencing INMI after listening to unfamiliar music, Liikkanen’s findings show that musically-inclined people were more susceptible to this stimuli.