You’re sitting on the metro after an endlessly tiring day at uni, and suddenly, Poker Face from Lady Gaga ‘comes on’ in your head. Maybe it helps to listen to another song, but at the end of the day, you’ll be falling asleep to “P-p-p-poker face, p-p-poker face…”.
This is called an earworm; a word that comes from the German word with the same meaning, ‘Ohrwurm’. It’s sometimes also referred to as “stuck song syndrome”, or, to use the proper scientific terminology: “Involuntary Musical Imagery”.
But what’s behind it all?
It could seem trivial, but scientists have no idea how to approach it so, they refer to it as an unexplored mental process. One of the most prominent experts in the topic is Vicky Williamson, who, together with the music psychology team of the University of Sheffield has done some research amongst the listeners of BBC Radio. Approximately 3000 people’s experiences were collected, and not just about which actual songs were often stuck in their heads (which appears to be extremely diverse, in 1000, only a couple songs came up for more than one person), but also regarding what they had been doing directly beforehand. This process is likely to ‘find us’ when we’re tired and less focused in general; because this state is when spontaneous cognition is activated within the brain. This is also responsible for the feeling when we think of a friend we haven’t seen in for a while, out of nowhere. Obviously, you can also get an earworm when you’ve listened to a song several times or you’ve recently been at a concert and so you can recall it as a fresh experience.
Is there an organic explanation?
David Kraemer of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire wanted to find the answer to this question. His team examined brain activity through an fMRI while playing the song ‘Satisfaction’ by Rolling Stones to the participants, with 2-5-second breaks inserted into the song. They were surprised to see that the primary and secondary auditory cortex were both activated, making up for the silence during the breaks.
What makes an ideal earworm?
Researchers at the aforementioned study also tried to find out if the songs had anything in common. It turns out, yes! During an earworm, we don’t listen to the whole song over and over again, but rather a 15-30 second excerpt, and we tend to pick songs that are upbeat, with unexpected turns and sudden changes between high and low pitches. A perfect example of this is “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5.
Most importantly: how to make it stop?
If you frequently get an earworm, don’t worry: you’re not alone. 92% of people experience something like this every week. Although most aren’t bothered by it, many have tried to stop the concert in their heads. A new method that seems to do the trick is chewing gum. The reason behind this lies in the responsible anatomical structures: chewing gum occupies the same areas in the brain that would be responsible for creating sounds, so we basically trick our brains.
Another verbal or musical solution is listening to a different song or playing an instrument. You can also try to concentrate: answer messages, emails, or plan tomorrow’s activities. The most obvious solution, however, is succumbing to temptation, and listening to the song from beginning to end.