It squirms to life when you least expect it. You’re brushing your teeth and have a nice rhythm going—shuhk-a shuhk-a shuhk-a shuhk.
Then without warning a little band in your brain starts warming up.
Suddenly it starts belting out the title song from a certain TV show:
Ack! The earworm has awakened! it will now play that same bit of song over and over and over in your mind! What is going on? Is there any hope? Or will the earworm eat your brain?!
Don’t worry too much if you have “earworms.” They’re not really creepy-crawlies that live in our heads. They’re sections of songs that we remember in our minds. Once they start, these music memories can repeat uncontrollably—for hours, days, even weeks at a time. Research indicates that nine out of ten people have experienced earworms that have lasted for an hour or longer. A few unfortunate folks even report having a song stuck in their heads for a year or more. (You can spot them because they run around yelling, “AAAHHH! Get this song out of my head!”)
Why does this happen? And what can we do about it?
TV and radio ads are a common source of earworms. Advertisers do their best to compose jingles or short songs they hope will turn into earworms. If they succeed, that means they have done their job to get customers to remember their restaurant, breakfast cereal, or other product. Another advertising strategy is to add classical or pop music that has already gained fame. For example, Bob Seger’s hit song “Like a Rock” was the theme song for Chevy trucks for many years.
The same is true for music from TV shows, movies, even video games. Chances are if someone says "Hey, Macarena" or "The Siiiim-psons" you can instantly hum part of it—and you might not be able to stop for a couple hours.
More than 100 years ago, Germans coined the term öhrwurm—earworm—to describe the experience of a song stuck in the brain. Scientists call it other names, like “stuck tune syndrome” and “musical imagery repetition.” But the creepy image of an earworm crawling into people’s brains caught on. There is even a musician known as DJ Earworm.
Recalling a favorite song in our imaginations can bring a private smile. But an earworm is different.
"Usually an earworm is a fragment of music, usually three or four bars, which go round and round and round,” Dr. Oliver Sacks said in an interview. Dr. Sacks is a neurologist and author who studies music and the brain. “This is a special form of involuntary musical imagery which is out of control and can become quite unpleasant and intrusive.”
While songwriters have learned many tricks for creating earworms, squashing them is another story. Earworm sufferers try many ways to erase an annoying melody. Some try to replace it by thinking of another song. Others sing the earworm song all the way through to its end. Others tackle a task that takes extra concentration. One study found that the harder people fight to quiet an earworm, the longer it tends to torment them.
The auditory cortex is where earworms do most of their karaoke routine. This is a part of the brain that does a lot of the processing of sounds, including music. It is also where musical memories are stored.
This was the finding of researchers at Dartmouth College. They conducted a brain scan experiment to test where the brain deals with “imagined music.” They played part of a familiar song, then interrupted it. The people being tested imagined the parts that were missing.
"We found that the auditory cortex that is active when you’re actually listening to a song was reactivated when you just imagine hearing the song,” says David Kraemer, the lead researcher. In other words, the auditory cortex acts as your imagination’s MP3 player.
Dr. Oliver Sacks wonders if earworms are largely a product of the electronic age. More than a century ago, most people had to go to parties, concert halls, or places of worship to hear music. There were no radios, stereos, or MP3 players that people could turn on and play their personal playlist. But today, people are surrounded by music wherever they go—in cars, stores, and through their headphones. Earworms have constant access to people’s minds and memories.
So far, no one knows why imagined songs sometimes get stuck in our minds. Still, the subject of earworms fascinates brain scientists. They have found that people’s memory for music is incredibly powerful. And putting information to music can help us remember facts and details more easily. For example, the ABC Song sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” probably helped you learn your letters, right? People can remember the melody, beat, and words to a song years after they last heard it.
Researchers wonder if studying what makes earworms so stubborn could offer insights into how our mind makes and keeps other memories.