The Earworm Phenomenon

How many of us find ourselves humming the same tune over and over each day, or not being able to get a song out of our heads? Each day, it is estimated that more than ninety percent of the population experience this phenomenon that is referred to as an earworm. It is a song or jingle we have heard on the radio that we just cannot stop ourselves from singing for the rest of the day. Recently scientists have researched this occurrence, with very interesting results. It now seems that the perfect song or jingle can unknowingly be created, so that listeners cannot forget the tune.

During online research it was found that many people do not mind having earworms, even though they sometimes do not understand why a particular song replays in their heads, especially if it is a song they are not particularly fond of. Scientists are also at a loss for the reasoning behind earworms and can only speculate that it caused by the way that the brain processes music. Oliver Sacks, a well respected neurologist, believes that our auditory systems also play a role in the creation of earworms, saying: “One such consequence is the omnipresence of annoyingly catchy tunes, the brainworms that arrive unbidden, and leave in their own time – catchy tunes that may be nothing more than advertisements for toothpaste but are, neurologically, completely irresistible.” According to Dr Lauren Steward, involved in Music, Mind and Brain as a co-director, the earworm phenomenon is a fascinating event. She commented, “What’s interesting to us is the fact that this spontaneous musical imagery comes without any conscious effort – as if from nowhere. At the moment, we’re still trying to figure out why that happens.”

Dr Daniel Müllensiefen, also a co-director for the Music, Mind And Brain project, is enthusiastic about the study of earworms, suggesting that by studying music, such as intervals, pitch and rhythms, it could be possible to predict if a certain song or tune could become an earworm. Müllensiefen explained, “By studying earworms we really can decode the DNA of a pop song that perfectly lodges in our memory.” He went on to say, “Most people think that we are studying the perfect pop song and will then sell the secret formula to the music industry. But all we are really interested in is to find out how the mind works and earworms are a perfect vehicle for mental mechanisms.”