Why can’t I get that song out of my head?

March 5, 2007 | By | 20 Replies More

I might owe some people an apology.  

I recently posted about a song from “Scrubs the Musical,” a television episode that aired a few weeks ago.  The title of this tune is presumably “Everything comes Down to Poo.”  It is a clever and funny tune, but it is also dangerous.

For me (hopefully not for you) that song morphed into an “earworm,” another name for a song that can get stuck in one’s head.  This crazy tune from Scrubs has been following me around relentlessly for the past two weeks.  It has sometimes been distractingly annoying during the day.  It even kept me awake one night last week.

What to do?  I just happen to be reading a cogsci/music book: This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin. Here’s what I learned from Levitin: There is relatively little scientific work done on the topic of earworms.  What is clear is that

musicians are more likely to have ear worm attacks than non-musicians, and . . . people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are more likely to report being troubled by ear worms—in some cases medications for OCD can minimize the effects.

Hmmm . . . This makes me wonder whether Walgreens carries any over-the-counter medications for OCD . . .

Levitin suggests that the neural circuits representing a song somehow get stuck in “playback” mode, but usually only a small fragment of a song (15 to 30 seconds) is involved.  Ear worms are most likely “simple songs and commercial jingles.”

Marketing professor James J. Kellaris, PhD, of the University of Cincinnati has also studied earworms. (Kellaris has also done some interesting research about customer reactions to the use of music by busisnesses).  He has found that nearly 98% of people have had songs stuck in their heads.  He has found that people tend to be haunted by their own idiosyncratic demon tunes. Musicians are more often bothered by non-musicians. He also notes that women are afflicted significantly more than men.  As Kellaris writes,

Songs with lyrics are reported as most frequently stuck (74%), followed by commercial jingles (15%) and instrumental tunes without words (11%),” Kellaris writes in his study abstract. “On average, the episodes last over a few hours and occur ‘frequently’ or ‘very frequently’ among 61.5% of the sample.

Kellaris has published his students’ “Top-Ten Earworm List”:

1. Other. Everyone has his or her own worst earworm.
2. Chili’s “Baby Back Ribs” jingle.
3. “Who Let the Dogs Out”
4. “We Will Rock You”
5. Kit-Kat candy-bar jingle (“Gimme a Break …”)
6. “Mission Impossible” theme
7. “YMCA”
8. “Whoomp, There It Is”
9. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
10. “It’s a Small World After All”

According to a separate list on Yahoo, other common earworms include “Raindrops Are Falling on My Head” and “Chicken Noodle Soup.” Over the years, my personal demon has been “Jingle Bell Rock.”  My wife’s demons have included “Sing a Song.”  My father-in-law was long haunted by “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

In an article called “’Brain itch’ keeps songs in the head,”  we learn this from a jingle writer:

For both advertising purposes and pop music purposes, you want something that once heard is not forgotten quickly or easily,” explained jingle writer Chris Smith, adding that a good earworm was “Insidious – and often quite blatant. One of the key elements of an earworm is repetition,” he said. “If you have something with a lot of varied content, it’s not so easily assimilated.”

Smith indicates that “Even the greatest musicians had suffered with earworms”:

Mozart’s children would “infuriate” him by playing melody and scales on the piano below his room – but stopping before completing the tune.  He would have to rush down and complete the scale because he couldn’t bear to listen to an unresolved scale.”

What can you do if you get a song stuck in your head?   Some people say that you must force yourself to sing the entire song.   I’ve tried that, but it only makes it worse for me.   Others say that you need to replaced the earworm with another earworm, which functions as an “eraser tune.”  That is the idea behind an enterprising site called “Maim that tune.” This tormented soul tried yet another potential remedy:

[R]umor has it that chewing on cinnamon sticks will help make the song begone. I’ll see if that works. All I know is that by the time I’d finished drafting this post, “Springtime For Hitler” had been replaced by “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

Not to frighten anyone needlessly, but earworms sometimes bloom into “musical hallucinosis,” where people vividly hear music that isn’t being played.  Such a hallucination can occur without any other distortion of reality and it can last for months.

Some research suggests infections of the brain, such as syphilis and Lyme disease, can trigger musical hallucinations by inflaming parts of the brain.  Curing the diseases sometimes cures the hallucinations as well. And in other cases, the songs just stop.

Hmmm.  I’m again thinking about going to Walgreens . . . 

In conclusion, I’m not going to ask anyone to comment on his or her most feared earworm.  Simply writing the title might trigger the extended playing of that song in your head.  Don’t risk it.  It’s not worth it.  Really.  Don’t you dare!

Then again, what is your most commonly recurring earworm?

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Category: Culture, music, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (20)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    I'll just link to <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=845#comment-9151">an earlier response I'd made related to this issue that evoked an uncharacteristic curse (I assumed with a grin) from gatomjp after he followed its link.

    Or perhaps I'll also add this somewhat more singable item:

    <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="http://youtube.com/watch?v=RkaUFB-EASI"&gt; Gone Daddy Gone

    Or, <a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Pachelbel Rant" href="http://youtube.com/watch?v=JdxkVQy7QLM"&gt; The Pachelbel Rant, also related to this issue.

    My most frequent earworm is In the Hall of the Mountain King. It appears whenever I work hard on a creative endeavor involving both creativity and craft skills (carpentry, silver smithing, etc).

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    Perhaps you are having flash-backs to your guitar-lick laden youth, sirrah!

  3. Mary Warner says:

    My most dreaded earworm is the Woody Woodpecker cartoon's theme song. It's most problematic because it is so incredibly annoying. Dave Barry suggests singing the earworm backwards to get it out of your head. It works for me.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Mary: Your comment provoked me to look up the WW theme song. To anyone for whom Woody's theme song is an earworm, I offer my deepest sympathy. Listen at your own risk.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan: Thank you for sharing Gone Daddy Gone, I think.

    As for "Bathtime in Clerkenwell"…well…Gatomp said it best, I think, when he said: "Damn you Dan Klarmann!!"

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    A cartoon theme that sticks in my head is the original (rarely heard) Chilly Willy song, found only about 1/3 of the way through the first ever Chilly Willy Cartoon. This linked file is the whole 6 minute cartoon. I was too lazy to extract just the song, as apparently was the manager of the fan club site.

  7. gatomjp says:

    I couldn't resist…I went back and listened to Bathtime in Clerkenwell again. Damn you Erich AND Dan!!

    I dare you to listen to this one. It's by a band called Royksopp and it was made famous in one of those ubiquitous Geico caveman commercials. It gets stuck in my head every time I hear it. So much so that I continue to hum it WHILE I'M LISTENING TO OTHER MUSIC!!! Aaaaaaaaagh!



  8. gatomjp says:

    I just recalled a strange recurring earworm that I have.

    I will very often find myself humming Jupiter from Holst's The Planets while I am in the shower. I don't know why this happens and I don't usually remember starting it. I simply notice when I am already doing it!

  9. Ben says:

    Is listening to music "better" than watching tv? What I mean is, does it have the same narcotic effect/affect on the brain chemistry as discussed here…
    http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=562#comments
    (we may have some hypocrites if the answer is yes)

    These are few songs currently playing in my head or which just pop up at strange times, but could be mood related…

    Buh buh buh buh Benny and the Jets

    That theme from E.T. the extra terrestrial

    Chilly Willy (Damn, you reminded me)

    Shine on you crazy diamond

    If I only had a brain (wizard of oz)

    You don't know how it feels, to be reeeeeee eeeeel (tom petty)

    It's a hard knock life (arrrgggg those kids)

    He's going the distance (he's going for speeed)

  10. Rosie says:

    My default earworm is "Turkey in the Straw." Isn't that awful? Occasionally I'll pick up something from the atmosphere and run with it for a day, but I always return to "Turkey."

    I have mood disorders which include OCD. I was saved from the craziness of this thing by Dr. Judith Rapoport, who treats anxiety and panic disorders. She wrote a book years ago called "The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing," about obsessive-compulsive disorder. There is a chapter in the book called something like "The song goes round and round…" I'm convinced that she was on to the earworm and to its context.

    Thanks.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Must not think of . . . Turkey . . . in . . the . . . TOO LATE!!!! Arrrrggghhh!

  12. Janet says:

    I just found this web site because I was looking for a " cure for my earworm. ( thanks – now I know what it is called) I have been humming

    " These are a few of my favorite things" since I saw the Sound of Music advertised on TV several weeks ago. This has never happened to me before. Why now???

  13. Tim Hogan says:

    Better that than the Veggie Tales' "Cheeseburger" song, AAAAAAGH!

  14. Dan Klarmann says:

    My latest earworm: <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68PF0n81o9Y">Bach Comes Back

    The visuals suit my macabre imagination, and the tunes get stuck in my head.

  15. Nick Hull says:

    Published here first! I think that I have discovered the cure for the earworm (aka Song Stuck in Head Syndrome). I have had 'Sandstorm' stuck in my head for weeks. Do Do Do Do, Da, De Do Do Do Do. Well I have cured it using a method I've used before. It requires the use of an MP3 player and headphones and it's not for the faint hearted. I have played the complete tune non-stop for 4 hours on repeat. It's broken the spell. I'm sick of it. The song no longer has any attraction and my brain almost signals pain when I think about it. I have desensitized myself to the song. There are no replacement songs (although one could arrive at any time). Now I just need to figure out how to get paid for this observation 🙂

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Nick Hull: Congratulations and my sympathy. It sounds like you've discovered the psycho-aural version of chemotherapy: it cures you after threatening to do you in entirely.

    One of my daughters recently showed me a popular musical youtube of guy and his cat and it is threatening to take deep root. I might have to resort to your cure, but I can't really bear the thought of it.

  17. John Coviello says:

    Omg i thought i was nuts!! As far back as i can remember i get songs in my head. A friend told me that its an ocd thing. So here i am looking it up. If someone says something that's in a song i sing it in my head over and over and over till i hear something else. I also wake up everyday with a different song. Could be anything. Today its cher. One morning it was the lavern and shirley song! Wtf?? When i tell u its any song. It is. And not that i just heard it. Its all day from song to song and usually cant remember it after its gone and onto the next one! Its all day and i hate it. Will i ever stop! I went on vacation this month and on the beach i had a line of a song over and over. Then realized it was the same song last year on the beach in my head. Cant remember it now of course! " do u belive in life after love after love after love". Arrrrggg helllllp!!!!

  18. Shari says:

    Maxwell's Silver Hammer. Going on two weeks now. Driving me mad!

  19. Nathan S. says:

    How can i tell the diffeerence between musical hallucinations, and ear worms? I always hear musicic, but it comes from my head, i know it’s not acually playing…

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