Why you can’t get that silly tune out of your head

Have you ever been walking down the street and begin to hum a tune that you cannot get out of your head? The worst part is that you may only remember parts of the song, therefore you repeat the same lyrics over and over again. This type of cognitive annoyance is called an earworm. These earworms tend to be involuntarily and can last between 8-10 seconds. I was recently watching videos on the Ted Talks website and a video came up discussing how earworms can come about in the human brain. The Ted Talk video is labeled, “Why do songs get stuck in our head?” Although there has not been a ton of research on this concept, there have been a couple studies in which researchers have proposed ideas in which how earworms can occur repeatedly in the brain and how difficult it is to get the song out of one’s head.

Researchers have found that if someone repeatedly listens to a certain tune, they will soon adapt a type pattern in the brain from that song. The video recounts that around a quarter of people in the world experience this type of cognitive phenomenon. Earworms usually occur for tasks that don’t tend to require much attention, such as brushing your teeth, waiting at a stoplight on your way home or even when you’re making a meal. Earworms are a type auditory imagery because they tend to be in-voluntarily. Once you get the tune stuck in your head, earworms are put on a loop to play over and over. A reason for the tendency to listen to these songs on repeat could be from modern technology like your iphone, the radio, the tv and other devices that influence your habit to hear that song on a daily basis. Some tunes are very popular and therefore others around you could also be humming that same melody. Which then can make you become hooked to listening to it as well. The late Mark Twain hypothesized that earworms have been around for centuries. The reason that music is so influential on our memory is because when we are trying to remember a melody, we have to play that song in our head in order to get to a certain note of that song. For example, in the “Happy Birthday” song, you must begin to sing the song in order to know what note that “You” lyric falls on the music spectrum.   

I also found an article on the science friday website, that goes more in depth about the cognitive phenomenon of the earworm. When people are listening to music, the motor cortex in their brain begins to light up. A professor who goes by the name James Kallaris, was interviewed in this article and he explains,”There are general patterns of characteristics for songs that frequently get stuck, such as being simple, repetitive, and having some mild incongruity,”.  So it is that repeated pattern of listening to music, that can influence people to replay songs in their head. Researcher Victoria Williamson argued in this online article that basically an earworm is our brain’s way of singing. She went on to say that anyone can experience an earworm, but it can occur more for people who are musically inclined. In addition, if the individual is stressed, nervous or tired; they might also experience this phenomenon. She suggests that one way someone can remove the earworms, is to find different music to distract you from the specific tune or keep listening to the song until you can’t listen to it anymore. Overall, this cognitive sensation is a fascinating discovery that researchers are still trying to comprehend to this day. However, you least you have some idea on why you can’t stop singing that “Let it Go” song in your shower.

References

  1. Margulis, E. H. (2016). Why do songs get stuck in our head. from http://tedtalkspsychology.com/songs-get-stuck-head-elizabeth-hellmuth/
  2. Tu, C. (2014, May 28). Why Do Songs Get Stuck in Our Heads? From http://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/why-do-songs-get-stuck-in-our-heads/

3 thoughts on “Why you can’t get that silly tune out of your head

  1. mgoad

    I feel like I always have a couple lines of a song stuck in my head, so it is great to find out there is a cognitive side to my annoying singing. I am glad you included the short ted talk in the beginning of your post, it helped give more background into earworms. I hope in the future they can figure out if it is possible to get a song out of your head, and if so then how can one do that? The songs that get stuck in my head seem to be very catchy and new, and I’ve also noticed they are very repetitive. What makes these songs so catchy though? That would also be interesting to find out what makes a song catchy in our minds. Also, these songs could be leaking into our implicit memory because usually I will catch myself humming a song and not even realize what I was doing. This could be from the point you mentioned about technology. We have so many ways to easily access music through places like Youtube and Spotify, that if we like a song, then we can listen to it on repeat, instead of hearing it once every couple of hours on the radio. This was very interesting, thanks for the insight!

  2. abarrow

    This is a really interesting blog post. I also seem to always have a song stuck in my head, even if I hate that song it still gets stuck in my head and I end up singing it. I enjoyed the ted talk that you added into your post because it gave my more information on earworms and how i’m not crazy for not being able to get a tune out of my head. I really enjoyed this blog post and learning about why I can’t get a song out of my head. I also hope that in the future they find a way to make it possible to get a song out of your head because even I get annoyed when i can’t stop singing or humming a certain song. I can’t imagine how other people feel when I keep singing only one line from a song over and over again.

  3. David Rettinger

    I once spent a whole canoe trip, 5 DAYS!, humming Britney Spears. I should have turned off the car radio before driving to the lake.

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