The earworm explained: New study explores the science of getting songs stuck in your head





Listen up! There may be a cure to the eternal torment of the earworm.

We’ve all had it. That tune or chorus, riff or lyric that burrows into your head and stays for minutes, hours or even days (damn you, Gnarles Barkley) against your will, repeating itself in a closed loop as you begin to loose your mind. Now, with our mental well-being at heart, academics at Goldsmith’s University in London have published a report exploring the causes and potential cures of getting songs stuck in your head, the symptom otherwise known as the earworm.

In a study based on over 18,000 people in England and Finland, academics found a number of ways in which the dreaded earworm could be contained or controlled. For one in ten, the cure involved listing to something else completely, with “God Save The Queen”, Happy Birthday and Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” having an high success rate as so-called ‘cure tunes’.

In other cases, listening to the song in question through to its conclusion can help break the repeated cycle, while distraction in the form of TV, conversation and even praying are quoted as powerful cures. While these may appear to add further stimuli to your already hyperactive mind, the report suggests that their success is due to the fact that competition in short-term memory is highest when the competing streams are similar. It certainly goes some way to explain why the mother of all earworms “Karma Chameleon” is listed as a ‘cure tune’.

Go on… try it.

The report also suggested that up to 90% of people experience earworms at least once a week, with those surrounded by music by occupation or hobby all the more susceptible (we’re looking at you too, reader). Dr Lauren Stewart, the principal investigator of the project from the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, said: “Understanding why earworms start and stop will help us better understand how and why the mind engages in spontaneous, involuntary cognition.”

She added: “People differ in how they feel about their earworms – some love them, some of them are totally driven to distraction, and for others, it might be very dependent on the content and context of the earworm as to how they feel about them.”

Although we’re yet to meet anyone who really enjoys the torment of 3 and half bars of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” on eternal repeat, why not lock yourself in a room with almost any track involving Pharrell (particularly those ending in Y) or Kylie’s aptly titled “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” and put the cures to the test. [via Goldsmiths]

Need a psychological explanation for your record buying addiction? Read the scientific and cultural diagnosis, we published last year.