Tuesday, 22 December 2009

A natural history of the Earworm - the song that won't get out of your head

Earworms are those songs that get lodged in your cranium, playing over and over and over. There's been surprisingly little published research on the phenomenon, although several popular science writers like Oliver Sacks have speculated about it. There's also an 'expert' in the form of Professor James Kellaris at the University of Cincinnati, but his investigations all appear to be unpublished. That hasn't stopped Kellaris' university from hosting a website devoted to earworms. And there's also an online earworm exhibition at San Francisco's Exploratorium.

Now two British psychologists, Philip Beaman and Tim Williams, have decided it's time to fill the empirical void and serve up some actual data on earworms. They surveyed just over one hundred railway travellers, students and visitors to a public garden about their earworm experiences, and they also asked 12 other participants to keep diary records for four weeks about their earworms.

Beaman and Williams found, contrary to the speculation, that earworms don't seem to be more common in people with musical expertise, although a study that actually targets musicians is needed to verify this. Instead, they found that it is people who judge music to be of more importance who are more likely to get a song stuck in their head.

Previous commentators have also tended to highlight the unpleasantness of earworms and compared them to the intrusive thoughts associated with obsessive compulsive disorder. However, the new research found that only a minority of earworms (33 per cent in the diary study) were described by participants in this way. Very few earworms recurred in the same day and most were usually gone by the next day. However, earworms did seem similar to intrusive thoughts in relation to attempts to banish them. Participants reported that most strategies, such as trying to think of another song, actually made the original earworm worse.

The researchers also looked at the typical length of earworm episodes. Approximately 27 minutes was the verdict from the diary study, and several hours was the survey result. Finally, what about the idea that some specific songs are more prone to becoming earworms than others? The researchers found little evidence for this. Different participants named and shamed different earworm songs and each individual participant tended to report a range of different songs, rather than pointing to repeat offending by the same recalcitrant tune. Instead, earworm potential appeared to be determined by amount of exposure to a tune combined with that tune's relative simplicity and repetitiveness.
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ResearchBlogging.orgBeaman CP, & Williams TI (2009). Earworms ('stuck song syndrome'): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts. British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953) PMID: 19948084

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


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14 comments:

  1. Anonymous2:32 pm

    I can't believe I found this article on Twitter! I finally realized that I have been *hearing* "One Week" by the Barenaked Ladies every morning when I wake up, and it seems like other parts of the day also. What is going on with me??? I need more information please!

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  2. Wow, earworm is the PERFECT word to describe songs that get stuck in your ehad. I always manage to get the most annoying song stuck in my head.

    http://brookewashere2010.blogspot.com/

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  3. I like the term "tune-itis". Had never heard "earworm" for it. I have what appears to be an unusual tendency for these stuck tunes.

    Along with tinitis ringing, I get the earworm tunes, when I don't take my allergy pill for a few days. I used to get them based on hormonal surges but that's in the past. My earworm tunes can stick for days, not just hours. And they are persistant, whenever my mind isn't actively focused on something else.

    Sometimes the tunes are ones I remember hearing on radio or TV at a recent time, other times I have no clue.

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  4. I am a 62 year old physicican and 10 months ago I developed non-stop earworms with about 3-4 varying tunes, but always present except as I am falling asleep. I have concurrent non-stop loud tinnitus/ear-ringing, starting a couple of months later, so both are present and precede what is actually occuring in the world: I hear my earworms (sometimes I hum the tunes out loud), tinnitus, and then, "behind" that, the spoken word or perhaps a symphony, making all things hard to hear. It is extremely annoying and I haven't found anything that helps, though I have tried many things and techniques.

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  5. I'm a manic Depressive and often get earworm. Currently Ive had the same tune stuck in my head for almost four days and its almost completely taken over. In a way its 'loud' by the sher dominance it has over my thinking processes. I'm unable to study or concentrate on any reading unless I read out loud.

    Listening to other tunes/genres does not work.

    I welcome any and all research on this as its becoming unbearable.

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  6. I wonder if we manic depressive people are more prone? I've had one stuck for a day, and it's become physically painful - or at least I'm associating it with my headache. It does reach the point where I can't read or think. I'm listening to my music collection now to try to dislodge it. One thing that seems to work is playing something on a musical instrument. Perhaps singing something aloud would do the same, along that same theory - but I find no anecdotal evidence one way or another. I do find positive reports with playing an instrument. Another that has worked for me - but not this time - is singing Henry the Eighth. It seems to stop the earworm without becoming one. Not that I'm prescribing, but if it's okay with your doc (it is with mine, and is my next step) an anxiolytic can help. None of this is based on solid research. I find no studies of earworm cures.
    I wish. I find the not being able to read or write due to the mental involvement/distraction of the worm particularly annoying.
    Good luck.

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  7. I welcome any and all research on this as its becoming unbearable.

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  8. Listening to other tunes/genres does not work.

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  9. I get movie clips/audio samples (like in the HBO show "Dream On") and song lyrics
    I rarely get just the song MUSIC as an earworm
    For example, if I win a poker hand = Kool and the Gang "Celebration" lyric
    If I lose a poker hand = "I coulda been a contender!!" Marlon Brando ("On The Waterfront")
    So I guess you could say my earworm intiations are situational??
    I am a serious movie buff and have an uncanny ability to recall script lines from movies
    I usually get them for an hour or so
    Sometimes it is an all day thing
    It's not unbearable for me
    Sometimes it distracts me from focusing on tasks though
    I think it may be some mild form of OCD
    Or people with OCD are more prone to earworms??

    I'm glad they are finally starting to do research on earworms.....

    I wish there was a way to view the study online without having to pay for it :(

    http://earwormchronicles.blogspot.com/

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  10. I get these earworms in bed when I am trying to sleep. The other night I must have gone through Bed of Roses by Bon Jovi about 6 times in the one night, and thats a long song. Another night it was Thunder Road, another epic song. I end up hating songs I use to like and have to turn off the stereo when they come on cos I know it will be in my head all night. Help!!

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  11. Anonymous3:57 am

    Michael Jackson's heal the world - I hate that song - anything sad in my life that darn song !!!

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  12. Further research could be conducted into the effect of reading this article on the prevalence of earworm-itis ;)

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  13. Marie6:13 pm

    Welcome to my world... I ALWAYS have a song in my head. It can be provoked by hearing it on the radio, or I realize I am "playing" something old and random like "Build me up, Buttercup". This kind always amazes me, wondering where I dredged it up. Sometimes they are distracting, but, usually just provide white noise behind other thoughts.

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  14. Anonymous9:42 am

    I keep my earworms in the medicine cabinet. Which mood will effect my day, courteous of a sympathetic earworm? Shall we try "Good Vibrations" or maybe 'Little Red Corvette'?

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