Why do songs get stuck in my head?

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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 sing it on your way to the restroom. 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" or "brain itch" -- a need for the brain to fill in the gaps in a song's rhythm.

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 earworms are simply a way to keep the brain busy when it's idling [source: University of Cincinnati]. Just as there are many theories, there are many names for the phenomenon. It's been called everything from "repetunitis" to "melodymania."

So why do some songs get stuck in our heads and not others?

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Getting Rid of Earworms

James Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Business Administration, has done research on earworms 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 earworms [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 a simple, upbeat melody; catchy, repetitive lyrics; and a surprise such as an extra beat or unusual rhythm -- the same factors that made the songs or jingles popular in the first place (like the Chili's, "I want my baby back baby back baby back ribs" jingle, 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 groan is cause for celebration to record companies and advertisers, who are thrilled when people can't get their songs and jingles 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 head 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:

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 or a CD 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.

[source: University of Cincinnati]

Don't worry if you keep getting songs stuck in your head -- it doesn't mean 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 condition 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.

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Sources:

  • BBC News. "'Brain Itch' Keeps Songs in the Head." http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/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.
  • 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.
  • University of Cincinnati. Earworm FAQs. http://www.business.uc.edu/earworms/faqs.