Why Do Songs Get Stuck in Your Head?

By: Stephanie Watson  | 
Will you still like that song when you've hummed it 13,000 times? Jason Reed/Ryan McVay/Getty Images

You're driving to work, listening to your favorite radio station, when on comes Britney Spears' "Baby One More Time." By the time you pull into your office parking lot, you have, "Oh baby, baby" running through your head. You hum it at your desk. You tap it out on the conference table during your morning meeting. When five o'clock finally rolls around, your coworkers are shooting you the evil eye and you're ready to pull your hair out.

Why do songs get inextricably stuck in our heads? Experts say the culprits are earworms (or "ohrwurms," as they're called in Germany). No, they're not parasites that crawl into your ear and lay musical eggs in your brain, but they are parasitic in the sense that they get lodged in your head and cause a sort of "cognitive itch" -- a need for the brain to fill in the gaps in a song's rhythm.


What Turns a Catchy Tune Into an Earworm Song?

When we listen to a song, it triggers a part of the brain called the auditory cortex. Researchers at Dartmouth University found that when they played part of a familiar song to research subjects, the participants' auditory cortex automatically filled in the rest -- in other words, their brains kept "singing" long after the song had ended [source: Prokhorov]. The only way to "scratch" brain itch is to repeat the song over and over in your mind. Unfortunately, like with mosquito bites, the more you scratch the more you itch, and so on until you're stuck in an unending song cycle.

There are many other theories about why songs get stuck in our heads. Some researchers say stuck songs are like thoughts we're trying to suppress. The harder we try not to think about them, the more we can't help it. Other experts claim that earworm songs are simply a way to keep the brain busy when it's idling.


Finally, a 2021 research paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that catchy music that gets stuck in your head helps to strengthen memories of past events that it coincided with. These musical memories could mean that music-based interventions would be helpful to people dealing with dementia and struggling to remember events and daily activities.

Just as there are many theories, there are many names for the phenomenon. It's been called everything from "repetunitis" to "musical imagery repetition." So why do some songs get stuck in our heads and not others?


Blame Sticky Tunes and Annoying Songs

James Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Business Administration, has done research on earworm songs and brain itch, and he's found that as many as 99 percent of us have fallen prey to them at one time or another [source: BBC News]. Kellaris says women, musicians, and people who are neurotic, tired, or stressed are most prone to earworm attacks. With musicians, it makes sense because they're listening to music continuously, but Kellaris isn't sure why women are more susceptible to 'stuck song syndrome' [source: Prokhorov].

Researchers also aren't sure why some songs are more likely to get stuck in our heads than others, but everyone has their own tunes that drive them crazy. Often the songs have an easy to remember melody, repetitive lyrics, and a surprise -- such as an extra beat or unusual rhythm. These components are largely responsible for popular jingles, including the Chili's "I want my baby back baby back baby back ribs", which made Kellaris' list of the most insidiously "stuck" songs.


Most people (74 percent) get caught up on songs with lyrics, but commercial jingles (15 percent) and instrumental songs (11 percent) can also be hard to shake [source: DeNoon]. What makes us collectively groan is cause for celebration to record companies and advertisers, who are thrilled when people can't get their pop song and jingle out of their heads.

Contrary to popular belief, we don't just repeat the songs we hate. In one study done by researchers at Bucknell University, more than half of students who had songs stuck in their heads rated them as pleasant, and 30% were neutral. Only 15% of the songs were considered unpleasant.


How to Get Songs Out of Your Head

Unfortunately, there's no tried and true way to get songs out of your deep temporal lobe areas once they're stuck in there. They can stick in your brain for anywhere from a few minutes to several days -- long enough to drive even the sanest person batty. Most earworms eventually "crawl out" on their own, but if a song is nagging you to the brink of insanity, here are a few tips to try [source: University of Cincinnati]:

1. Sing another song, or play another melody on an instrument.


2. Switch to an activity that keeps you busy, such as working out.

3. Listen to the song all the way through (this works for some people).

4. Turn on the radio, play a CD, or stream something to get your brain tuned in to another song.

5. Share the song with a friend (but don't be surprised if the person become an ex-friend when he or she walks away humming the tune).

6. Picture the earworm as a real creature crawling out of your head, and imagine stomping on it.


Music Perception Vs Musical Obsessions

Don't worry if you keep getting a song stuck in your head. There's no evidence to suggest there's anything wrong with you.

However, if you actually hear music that isn't there (instead of just thinking about it), see a psychologist or other mental health professional. It could be a sign of endomusia -- an obsessive compulsive disorder in which people hear music that isn't really playing.


For more music articles and answers to questions you never thought to ask, try the next page.

Frequently Answered Questions

How do you get rid of an earworm?
Some people find that chewing gum or listening to a different song can help.

Lots More Information

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  • BBC News. "'Brain Itch' Keeps Songs in the Head." Oct. 29, 2003 (June 24, 2021) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3221499.stm
  • Consumer Science. "Who Let the Earworms Out?" December 2, 2005, pg. 14.
  • DeNoon, Daniel J. "Songs Stick in Everyone's Head." WebMD, February 27, 2003. http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/news/20030227/songs-stick-in-everyones-head.
  • Exploratorium. Science of Music. http://www.exploratorium.edu/music/questions /earworm.html.
  • Kubit, B. M., & Janata, P. "Spontaneous mental replay of music improves memory for incidentally associated event knowledge." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. (June 24, 2021) https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0001050
  • Kovler, Jessica. "Researcher confirms existence of 'earworms': 98% of people have had songs stuck in their head." SFGate.com, August 12, 2003. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2003/08/12/MN129881.DTL.
  • Kylstra, Carolyn. "Change that Tune. Parenting. November 2007, Volume 21, Issue 10, pg. 83.
  • Prokhorov, Vadim. "Can't Get it Out of My Head." The Guardian, June 22, 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2006/jun/22/popandrock.
  • Scientific American Mind. "Why is it that after listening to music, the last song you hear sometimes replays in your mind for several minutes after the music stops?" 2007, Volume 18, Issue, 2, pg. 86.