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Earworms: The Science of and the Statistics Behind Getting a Song Stuck in Your Head

by admin on November 14, 2014

Have you heard of an Ohrwurm? You’ve probably encountered one in the past few days, or even have one right now. While reading this, you may actually be listening to something that will cause you to have one later. Ohrwurm is the original German word for “earworm”; no, I am not referring to that disgusting bug, an earwig, that crawls into your ear. An earworm is that catchy tune you have in your head. It’s intangible and sometimes annoying. It can even have a negative impact on your productivity (maybe even while reading this article right now). I am going to explain the statistics on earworms and maybe you can pinpoint why you, in 2011, despite its horrible production and lyrical content, continued to hear “Friday” by Rebecca Black in your head over and over again.

First off, studies show that 98% of individuals experience or have experienced getting songs stuck in their heads. Are you a female? If so, you are more likely to have earworms more often. This is because male and female brains differ in many ways, and female brains make more connections than male brains and are also have more obsessive traits than males. Ladies, you are more likely to associate a song with someone or something and then are more likely to dwell upon that subject/song. Those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder are also more likely to develop an earworm easier than those who do not have OCD. Another thing to consider is whether or not you’re a musician. If you play an instrument regularly, study music, or play at shows, you are more susceptible to getting an earworm. For example, I play clarinet and when I am rehearsing/practicing a song for a long period of time, those songs, no matter the genre, will get stuck in my head. (Another interesting question would be to ask if memorizing a song, like many musicians do for performances, is the same as an earworm, except with more intention?)

Now another thing to consider is the likelihood of a specific song to get stuck in your head. According to Lauren Stewart, the director of the Music, Mind, and Brain program at Goldsmiths, University of London, and co-director Daniel Müllensiefen, songs that contain closely spaced musical intervals, like second intervals and/or chromatic notes, that are played for a decent length of time (like a half note or longer, depending on tempo) tend to stick in one’s brain more than other songs. Also, statistics show that over 75% of earworms have lyrics. Songs with lyrics and closely spaced notes tend to resonate in the brain. This explains why most people do not ever talk about John Luther Adams’ sonic Alaska compositions getting stuck in their heads. The brain obsesses over certain parts of a song rather than the full length song, this is related to song memory and attention span. Most of the time earworm “attacks” are 15 to 30 seconds long.

Another contributing factor to why songs get stuck in your head is your internal environment and your external environment. Are you mad at your mom? Is your room super quiet? Happy that you got to visit home from being at college for a few months straight? The environment around you contributes to the possibility of getting an earworm: that song played one too many times on the radio when you were happy or when you went to an exciting concert. The bigger impact is your mental state. The fact that there is a connection between when an earworm attacks you and your mental state is obvious but what goes on during that connection is not exactly known by scientists. It is unexplained why our brains seem to work against us when we are trying to write an academic paper due in two hours, but an earworm is making us lose our focus every five minutes.


What song is stuck in your head? Do you think you know why?

by Amanda McCauley

Jon Michael Askew November 20, 2014 at 5:01 pm

I really enjoyed your presentation and cant wait to learn more on how ear worms work, especially on the differences between the brains of males and females and how this plays a role in earworms. Its really unfortunate but ingenious that tons of hit songs use the same simple beats and chord progressions that are extremely predictable, yet they get stuck in your head for days. I would love to learn more about the effect of earworms on focus and on/ off- task behavior; for example i wonder if having a song you enjoy stuck in your head while doing other activities positively effects productivity, and the same for a song you don’t enjoy having negative effects on productivity. Keep up the good work!

Healey Cox-McMahon November 18, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Jeez, a million songs are stuck in my head. Now I’ve got Rebecca Black wailing most prominently in my subconscious thanks to your article. Interesting stuff though. During your presentation, most of the songs you noted as examples began to pop in my head, like I could hear a mental playback of them just by hearing their name (e.g. MGMT). So when you ask if memorizing a song is the same as an earworm, I would say most definitely. Songs and lyrics that I have written myself are especially wormin’ around in my brain all the time, probably because I have a special connection with them. But is there a difference between a poppy earworm that gets stuck in your head just for a few days after you hear it on the radio, and an earworm that eternally crawls around your subconscious? Also earworms can definitely make it difficult when on a soundwalk or otherwise trying to practice active listening because they take your awareness away from the actual sounds of the moment. Are earworms evil? Perhaps we should implant “eco-friendly” earworms onto Top 40 radio stations that would remind average Joes that the Earth is doomed if we keep living like we do.

Amanda McCauley November 19, 2014 at 12:12 am

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this comment. I’m glad you thought the topic was interesting and I’m glad you’ve given me insight on memorization, possible situations in which earworms are detrimental, and your questions. These questions will actually help me write my paper!

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