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.

Presented by

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

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