Why Songs Get Stuck in Your Head

Enjoyable now; maddening later.
Horia Varlan/flickr

Few people are spared the occasional experience of being gripped by the obstinate unfolding of an imagined line of music. Although the sound might not exist at the present moment in the real world, or be audible to anyone else, it can seem compellingly, maddeningly real. An episode of this sort often seems more like the reliving of a tune than the simple remembering of it.

If I remember hearing a concert performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony, the memory might include something about the hall, the view from my seat, how many movements there were, the perfume of someone in the row behind me, a bit of lush orchestral timbre, and the expressive resonance of the piece. But if the second theme gets stuck in my head, it’s a totally different experience—I seem not to remember, but rather to rehear the entire thing. A quality that distinguishes it from most imaginings as well as most memories is its repetitiveness: Once the tune comes to an end, it loops around and starts playing again from the beginning.

On some of its replays, I might be driven to sing along, or hum a bit, or tap the rhythm on the table, and it’s usually only when the music breaks into the external world in this way that I become aware of the extent to which it has ensnared my mind.

This odd cognitive phenomenon, although quite common, remained unstudied until recently, and even the handful of studies that approach the topic have remained at the descriptive level, failing to provide a theoretical account. There is, however, no shortage of words in general circulation that attempt to capture the experience. Germans call it Ohrwurm, and the English language has adopted the translation of this word, earworm. It can be called musique entêtante in French and canzone tormentone in Italian, which translate respectively to “stubborn music” and “tormenting songs.” Among scholars, James Kellaris refers to it as cognitive itch, Daniel Levitin as stuck song syndrome, Oliver Sacks as sticky music, and Lassi Liikkanen as involuntary musical imagery (INMI).

In 2008, Liikkanen surveyed 12,420 Finnish Internet users about their experience with INMI. An amazing 91.7 percent of them reported getting a tune stuck in their head at least once a week. 33.2 percent said a tune got stuck in their head at least once a day, and 26.1 percent said it happened several times a day. The fact that more than 1 in 3 respondents identified earworms as a daily occurrence, and more than 1 in 4 reported experiencing them several times a day, suggests that the phenomenon is not only widespread but also relatively frequent.

In 2007, University of Hull musicologist Freya Bailes used a different methodology to see if earworms are really as pervasive as Liikkanen’s account claims. She contacted participants at random intervals over a weeklong period and asked them to report their experience of musical imagery at the moment they received the request. The prevalence rate varied widely among participants, but was still surprisingly high, with the participant who experienced the least frequent imagery reporting it on 12 percent of the sampled occasions, and the participant who experienced the most reporting it on 53 percent of them. Between 10 percent and half of randomly selected moments throughout the day, in other words, were moments when people were experiencing musical imagery.

The highest incidence of musical imagery occurred during “time filler” activities such as waiting in line, and more often in social contexts than when people were alone. Participants were generally aware of the imagined music, but it was not the focus of their attention, and the experience typically wasn’t unpleasant. The most vivid part of the imagery was the melody and the least vivid was the harmony, leading Bailes to favor the expression “tune on the brain” over “music on the brain.”

In response to an open-ended question about “how complete their imagery was,” most participants in Bailes’ study described “the image as a repeated fragment…very often the chorus of a song.” Song choruses are not only the most frequent musical segment to show up in an earworm, they are also the musical segment most people can readily sing. What sounds people can vividly imagine are related to what sounds they can actually produce, a fact that highlights the close relationship between musical imagery and the motor system.

* * *

It would be tempting to believe that the kind of repetition afforded by technologies of recent and semi-recent invention—the stuck needle on a phonograph, the tape loop, the digital sample—had spurred this epidemic, provoking some new and distinctly 20th-century malady, but Mark Twain chronicled the experience in his short story "A Literary Nightmare," published in an 1876 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. This story, which describes the gradual possession of an entire community by a damningly catchy jingle that gets stuck on mental repeat in all of their imaginations, was handily published one year before the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877, evidencing that the phenomenon of the earworm existed before the dissemination of technologies that mimicked and perhaps exacerbated it.

Still, technology unquestionably makes possible a degree and pervasiveness of repetition that was previously unheard of. This affordance is reflected in the tendency of contemporary art music either to suffuse itself with or entirely reject repetitiveness. Technology made it impossible to remain neutral or unreflective about repetitiveness; in 20th-century styles it was either pushed self-consciously to the foreground (in the case of minimal music) or expressly avoided (in the case of serial music, for example). This state of affairs has been well investigated by cultural theorists.

Among them, Robert Fink chronicles how repetition in minimal music “can be interpreted as both the sonic analogue and sonic constituent of a characteristic repetitive experience of self in mass-media consumer society.” Fink cites French economist Jacques Attali’s treatise on the political economy of music and the all-consuming repetitiveness of mass production—“the replacement of the restaurant by pre-cooked meals, of custom-made clothes by ready-to-wear, of the individual house based on stereotypical designs, of the politician by the anonymous bureaucrat, of skilled labor by standardized tasks, of the spectacle by recordings of it.” University of Washington music professor John Rahn presents a different perspective with a Freudian reading of repetition:

This process of continual repetition, continual change-of-context constituting meaning, creatively folding a life back over its traces as it unfolds, is a source of great satisfaction, aesthetically desperate and desperately aesthetic, for without this process, without hope of telos, there would be no life. Who among us is ready to die? To be ready to die would be not to be living. As long as one is living, one's life is unachieved, the final reconfiguration un-folded-back to give meaning to the whole, to make a whole. Therefore no one can die happy who is still really living, who is committed to the project of repetition, of making sense of changes-of-context. Death is not a change of context; it is the end of changes of context and the end of meaning …

In contrast to both of these views, I would argue that a tendency toward repetition in music represents a sort of unified psychological principle, rather than an incidental byproduct of some set of cultural or historical circumstances. Technology is a force that interacts with these fundamental tendencies, exaggerating them. In the same way that modern technologies related to food production hijack appetite predispositions that evolved long before taquitos were invented, modern technologies related to sound production can hijack perpetual tendencies that were in place long before the technologies were invented.

Thus, earworms, a cognitive tendency so closely tied to motor systems, and so squarely removed from conceptual and rational kinds of thought, can naturally arouse suspicions—particularly when its repetitive structures so powerfully evoke systems of mass production and a threatening mechanization. Tufts professor of music Joseph Auner raises the example of the last utterance of the dying HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, observing that its repetitiveness ("I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it.") encapsulates the horror of a kind of erasure of the human. He quotes W. G. Sebald’s description of a brand of physical disgust that can arise in response to inadvertent repetition in behavior or conversation—a sensation that is likely familiar to many.

I recall one occasion when I was collecting data for a project, ushering participant after participant into a soundproof booth in a room where other researchers were working at various workstations. As I repeated the same instructions to each participant, and answered the same questions that tended to arise mid-experiment with the same language, I found myself almost irresistibly drawn to slight variations in the order or wording of my statements, disturbed by something inhuman and sinister in the experience of hearing the same words coming out of my mouth again and again.

The same sort of squeamish feeling can arise when a person retells a story you’ve already heard, especially if the retelling includes verbatim locutions. Part of this discomfort is attributable to the fact that verbatim repetitions violate conversational maxims to reduce redundancy and remain relevant, and can make the speaker seem boorish or improperly socialized. Another part of it is attributable to discomfort at the idea that thoughts are not our own, spontaneous, soul-engendered entities, but rather products of some invisible, subconscious script: it’s a fear about automaticity and loss of control.

While verbal repetition, especially verbatim verbal repetition, can raise these sorts of fears, the execution of motor scripts often fails to trouble us in the slightest. I’m not at all worried that I use the same movements every time I brush my teeth, or that I move about the kitchen every morning in precisely the same sequence assembling a cup of coffee, using the same gestures, and following an identical series of steps. In fact, it is only when these routines are interrupted that I am even aware of them: if the mug is not on the shelf as expected, or the toothbrush fell on the floor.

The repetitiveness of music has more in common with these inconspicuous routines than with repeated language. Even when the linguistic repetition is goal-directed and necessary (as in the repeated instructions to experiment participants)—not different in function from the kind of repetition that occurs in the case of tooth brushing or medicine preparing—it’s salient and unsettling.

This post is adapted from Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis' On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind.

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Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis is a concert pianist and the director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas.

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