A look at how earworms -- when a song gets stuck in your head -- happen, and if there's anything to do to stop it.
“It’s a small world after all; it’s a small world after all; it’s a small world after all; it’s a small, small world.”
Ordinarily we try not to annoy our readers, but for purposes of what we’re about to tell you, we had to put you in the right mindset: under the influence of an earworm. An earworm is one of those nasty little songs that crawls into your brain and consumes the sum total of its energy, refusing to relinquish control of your every thought until it has driven you positively insane.
But why does it happen? Why? Why do you constantly find yourself singing songs you don’t like?
The question is one that James Kellaris, a marketing professor and music lover at the University of Cincinnati, has been trying to answer for years.
“As a student of music and later as a working musician, I was particularly prone to getting music stuck in my head. I think it was a combination of exposure, repetition and perhaps being a tad neurotic,” he said.
Earworms carry several defining marks: They are simple. They are repetitive. They have bouncy rhythms. And they are incongruous.
Incongruity, a sudden twist in a song, is what gives the earworm its bite.
For instance, most songs end on the note of the key they are in. This is called resolution. Think of the last note of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Musicians write songs this way because it is what your brain expects.
When this doesn’t happen, or when you stop listening to a song halfway through at an unresolved spot, your brain attempts to resolve it by playing the song repeatedly.
Soon, it’s stuck in your head and you are powerless. You try to turn your attention elsewhere, but your efforts are in vain. Trying not to think about an earworm only makes things worse.
“The irony of not thinking about something is that we have to remember what it is that we’re not supposed to think about,” Kellaris said.
“Psychologists call this the ‘white bear’ phenomenon, because when people in an experiment were asked not to think about a white bear, they discovered that they thought about it frequently,” Kellaris said.
But earworms aren’t bad for everyone – advertisers, for one, strive to get things about their product stuck in potential consumers’ heads.
“From a business standpoint, it’s a wonderful thing. From an artistic standpoint, it’s probably not such a wonderful thing,” said Jon Aldrich, who teaches the a jingle-writing class, among many others, at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Most of his students are mechanically proficient musicians who lean toward artistically complex music – jazz, funk, fusion. But the power of the earworm should not be underestimated.
Aldrich, for example, struggles to get Chumbawumba’s 1998 hit “Tubthumping.”
“Maybe you and I laugh at that song, but I bet there are literally thousands of people around the world that whenever they hear that song they crank it up,” he said. “If that’s the power of a song – WOW – to say ‘I affect thousands of people,’ that’s something.”
Bronwyn Bird, a junior music-therapy major at Berklee College of Music, recently did a project on this phenomenon.
Earworms, she said, can be used for the forces of good.
On an internship, she helped teach disabled students by writing songs to reinforce what their classes were teaching. Being able to arm those songs with an arsenal of earworm qualities, she said, could only help.
“It would help get that song in their head, and they’ll be able to remember what it is they are trying to learn. It’s definitely useful,” she said.
Part of her project was drawn from a recent Dartmouth College study in which researchers took MRIs of people’s brains as they listened to songs that had certain portions muted.
“While you’re hearing the song in your head the same areas in your brain light up as if you were hearing the songs out loud,” Bird said.
Researchers found that this mental activity continued through the muted portions, but Kellaris said he does not believe it provides any keys to dissecting earworms.
“I don’t wish to denigrate the value of the Dartmouth research – I just don’t think it solves the mystery of earworms, which I think is a breakdown of mental control rather than filling in missing information,” he said.
Case in point: For Aldrich, like many, the Chumbawumba song is the worst.
For Kellaris, however, it’s the Byzantine chants from his Greek Orthodox church.
And for Bird, the theme song to the movie “Hook” – a movie she says she probably hasn’t seen since she was 10 – is her most frequent and dreaded earworm.
“I don’t think the cause lies within the music itself – it lies within the brain of the ‘victim’ who is bitten by an earworm,” Kellaris said.
So until that cause is discovered, we are all at the mercy of these devilish little bugs. And in the meantime, please join me in trying to get Hanson’s “MMMbop” out of my head.
Contact Eleni Himaras at firstname.lastname@example.org.