Most likely many people reading this have experienced earworms, or “stuck song syndrome.” This occurs after listening to a catchy piece of music often or repeatedly, until the tune is stuck in your head. You may be unable to shake it off and you might involuntarily start singing it out loud.
Earworms, sometimes known as Involuntary Musical Imagery, mostly occur with popular songs or tunes. They can appear for people with good memories and those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as those with high sensitivity. The condition generally lasts for only a short period of time and is sometimes compared to a needle stuck on one particular part of a record, repeating over and over. It has been found that up to 98% of those in the Western world have experienced earworms. For a majority of people these have little, if any, effect on their lives. Only a small percentage describe them as annoying and/or causing insomnia.
Earworms can occur due to the brain’s attempt to fill a gap in the auditory cortex, which is located in the temporal lobe. When you hear a song over and over, the brain transmits that sound information to the “phonological loop,” a short-term memory system in the auditory cortex. Earworms can be caused or triggered by the most recent song you listened to, a song or tune listened to repeatedly, a song listened to during a period of stress, or a song that connects to past events or memories.
A study by music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski found that earworms are usually tunes that have a fairly generic and easy-to-remember melody. They’re usually fairly easy to sing and also tend to have some additional unique characteristics that set them apart from other songs. Oftentimes an earworm will be a portion of a song that repeats over and over, such as a chorus when it is the only part of a song the listener remembers. It’s as if the brain is trying to find a way out of that hook or chorus, but instead gets stuck and keeps going over and over that same portion of the song.
In addition to the annoyance that comes with not being able to shake a piece of music from our ears or brain, earworms can cause insomnia. Generally, however, earworms are not considered dangerous and, in the majority of cases, are described as neutral or even pleasant. They may even be a part of your brain’s creative process. Due to the unique characteristics of certain tunes or songs, hearing or singing them frequently may help stimulate creativity. Earworms may also indicate successful marketing, as creating a catchy tune or jingle is one way to create a positive attitude towards a product or service. Catchy jingles become well-known and gain widespread popularity within a short amount of time. They also create a positive image for a product or organization and can increase marketing and income opportunities as well.
For those with mental health issues or other neurological conditions, earworms can sometimes cause stress or obsession and, in rare cases, are experienced during migraine and epileptic attacks. Persistent earworms—those lasting more than 24 hours—may be caused by a number of different illnesses and medical conditions.
Earworms generally disappear on their own within a short time. In cases where they cause undue stress or concern, or affect daily life, the following steps can be taken:
An earworm is not a disease—it can happen to anyone, sometimes frequently, and generally disappears on its own within a short time. In cases where an earworm causes annoyance or stress, preventing you from enjoying your daily life and activities or disturbing your sleep, diverting your attention by engaging in other activities while avoiding popular or catchy music will usually solve the problem. If an earworm persists for longer than 24 hours it may be necessary to visit a doctor, as earworms can be related to brain system disorders.