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Why songs get stuck in our head - and the most common 'earworms'

·4-min read
Close-up portrait of nice lovely sweet attractive calm peaceful conecnrated focused girl wearing touching earphones closed eyes isolated over pink pastel background
One study found Lady Gaga's 'Bad Romance' is the most common 'earworm'. (Getty Images)

Waking to a catchy tune can lead to a frustrating day if the song plays on repeat in your head.

A study of more than 12,000 people by the University of Helsinki found these irritating “earworms” wriggled into 89% of the participants’ brains at least once a week.

Scientifically known as “involuntary musical imagery”, they can turn over in our heads for days, even if we dislike the song.

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“Most earworms eventually ‘crawl out’ on their own, but can stick in your brain for anywhere from a few minutes to several days,” Liz Ritchie, psychotherapist at St Andrew’s Healthcare, told Yahoo UK.

“[This is] long enough to cause considerable irritation, particularly if you inadvertently hear a pop song on the radio that you despise, yet it ends up stuck in your head.”

Research reportedly suggests women tend to be more susceptible to earworms than men, with them also finding the affliction more irritating.

As to why they occur, the jury appears to be out.

“While experts are starting to understand the common characteristics of earworm songs, they’re still less clear on why these songs stick in our heads in the first place,” said Ritchie.

“Research has suggested earworms could be related to how music affects the brain’s motor cortex.

“Another influence could be repetitive listening.”

Harvard Health Publishing reported earworms “rely on brain networks involved in perception, emotion, memory and spontaneous thought”.

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What are the most common ‘earworms’?

When it comes to the songs that are most likely to stick in our head, it may depend on an individual’s musical preferences.

“For a song to transfer into an earworm, it generally needs to be catchy enough for your brain to give it attention,” said Ritchie.

“Certain factors that may make a song catchy include tempo, volume, rhythm, lyrics and emotion. This of course can be very subjective”.

A 2017 study by Durham University had 3,000 people complete a questionnaire that asked about their most common earworms.

Results suggested songs that “achieved greater success and more recent runs in the UK music charts” were the biggest offenders.

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Lady Gaga’s number one hit Bad Romance, which spent 47 weeks in the charts, was the most citied earworm.

This was followed by fellow number one Can’t Get You Out Of My Head by Kylie Minogue, despite it being out of the charts for more than 4,000 days by the time the research was carried out.

The scientists found a link between the number of times a song was named an earworm and its UK charts entry, weeks in the charts and number of days since it exited the charts.

Songs that began with a rise then fall in pitch - think Maroon 5’s Move Like Jagger - were also more likely to be earworms.

“Our findings show you can to some extent predict which songs are going to get stuck in people’s heads based on the song’s melodic content,” said lead author Dr Kelly Jakubowski.

“These musically sticky songs seem to have quite a fast tempo along with a common melodic shape and unusual intervals or repetitions like we can hear in the opening riff of Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple or in the chorus of Bad Romance.”

Close up,female hands playing piano.
Musical ability has been linked to an increased susceptibility to earworms. (Getty Images)

Harvard reported people may be most susceptible to an earworm when they feel “good”, or are in a “dreamy or nostalgic state”.

On the flip side, stress could also make the brain “latch onto a repetitive idea”.

Personality traits like being anxious, open to new experiences or even just being musically gifted may make people more “at risk” of involuntary musical imagery.

A pianist and composer claimed to “have music running through his head almost constantly during waking hours”.

“I find almost nothing pleasurable about having a ‘perpetual music track’,” he wrote.

“Rather, it is quite a distraction most of the time, the kind of thing I wish I could turn off.”

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Research into how to rid an earworm has thrown up some intriguing results.

A 2015 study by the University of Reading found chewing gum “interferes with articulatory motor programming”, making people less able to “hear” music in their head.

Five years earlier, some of the same scientists had volunteers write about their earworms in a diary, which only made matters worse.

“Active attempts to block or eliminate the earworm are less successful than passive acceptance”, they wrote.

Ritchie recommends thinking of another song, in the hope it will “displace the first one”.

“Try solving some easy anagrams, Sudoku puzzles, read a book or listen to audio, listen to different music,” she told Yahoo UK.

If this fails to help, rest assured the earworm will not be part of your consciousness forever.

“Accept they are there,” said Ritchie.

“Sometimes the most effective way to manage them involves accepting them or letting them run their course.”

In severe cases, for example if an earworm becomes a “musical hallucination”, scientists from Haga Hospital in the Netherlands found antidepressants may have some benefit.

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