Have you ever been sitting down waiting for something when a song pops into your head? Not the whole song, just a fragment of the song that goes on repeat and won’t stop. You have been struck by an earworm and you’re not alone. According to studies, over 90% of people have experienced earworms.Women and men experience the phenomenon equally often, but earworms tend to last longer for women and irritate them more.
Scientists usually call earworms Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) because earworms are linked to other kinds of involuntary thoughts. Earworms tend to be songs that you know and like: you listen to them more. The most common cause of earworms unsurprisingly was recent and repeated exposure to a song. They can be triggered by experiences that trigger the memory of a song (involuntary memory) such as seeing a word that reminds one of the song, hearing a few notes from the song, or feeling an emotion one associates with the song.
Earworms tend to happen when your brain isn’t working very hard like while brushing your teeth or waiting for water to boil. You can even get a song playing in your head while you’re dreaming. Apparently it is very common for people to wake up with a song already playing inside their head.
So how do you get rid of these tunes playing inside your head? One of the strangest ways is to chew gum which might somehow interfere with the same processes your brain is using to play the song. Another way is to listen to a similar song. Some people report listening to “cure songs”, songs that would push the earworms out of their head but won’t become earworms themselves. Scientists can’t explain why this is possible because all songs can become earworms. Lots of people might know the first verse and the chorus of the song but they might not know the second verse. So the brain can’t complete the task and the chorus gets stuck in an infinite loop. Listening to the whole song or singing along can often make it go away.
In another study, researchers asked the participants who had earworms to solve puzzles. One group had to solve puzzles that involved numbers like sudoku and the other group was asked to solve word puzzles. The researchers wanted to know if the difficulty of the puzzles could push the earworms out of their brains and if it mattered if the puzzles involved letters or numbers. It turns out that puzzles that were too easy weren’t distracting enough to cure the earworms and the same goes for the puzzles that were too hard. When a task is too difficult, you can lose interest and the earworm sneaks back in. Word puzzles were also found to be more effective since most people get the lyrics of a song stuck inside their head. When solving word puzzles, your brain needs to use the same resources as playing the lyrics inside your head.
So next time you get an earworm, just play a moderately difficult word puzzle or do nothing at all- if it’s your favourite song and you like it looping.