Why annoying songs get stuck in your head


We’ve all been there: You’re outside and hear a passerby’s hum a few bits away from that pesky song you hate … and it hits!

This song immediately starts repeating in your head, and continues to do so for several days.

You can’t stop it, even though you hate that song.

This type of song, my friends, is called an earworm.

Victoria Williamson, responsible for Music and Brain, tells us, “Basically, an earworm is your brain’s singing.”

According to her, earworms happen more often and it’s usually a neutral or pleasant experience. However, because we “are more inclined to remember the things that bother us,” most people notice and remember the little that really excites them.

James Kellaris, a professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati, is known as the original “Dr Earworm” after years of studying people whose song snippets were replayed in their brains.

It is found that 98% of us suffer from earworms (usually singing rather than mechanical), and that while both women and men suffer from earworms, women are more likely to endure them for a longer period, to the point of irritation.

His research also indicates that musicians and those who worry about us are more likely to be infected. (And who wouldn’t worry about at least a little?)

So, what do you do when this song sneaks into your mind and won’t leave you alone?

As you know, trying to get rid of an earworm is an exercise in frustration.

Here are some ways to effectively deal with the problem and get a song out of your head.


1. Understand that your brain is trying to help you (yes, seriously!).

There is a friendly part of your brain that recognizes when stress starts to escalate (on your wedding day, before a big presentation, during an important meeting, etc.)

This same chunk of gray matter also knows that the healthy thing to do is de-escalate and eliminate stress.

Would you agree that this inner friend has a good reason to divert your attention? Who loves a friend who is always complaining?

You brain wants to tell you, “Hold on! Don’t stress! You’ll never get everything done if you keep rushing like a crazy person!” But instead, you slip away in a distraction … the earworm. Your brain knows you need to shift gears and knows how to choose the right (or wrong) song to achieve exactly that.

Therefore, every annoying earworm actually comes with good intentions. Acknowledging this restores your strength. It is harmless and only tries to help you change gears.

Have you noticed that the regular earworm really isn’t about anything?

Usually, this is the completely wrong audio track for the present moment.

Example: You are enjoying a romantic evening with a new love interest and suddenly … “All I want for Christmas are my front teeth” starts playing in your head, interrupting the mood.

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What a downer! But you are still responsible, so what do you do?

2. Let the song play completely on your mind

Resistance is useless. So instead of fighting it, let the earworm complete itself by intentionally listening to the entire song in your mind.

If you can force the “player” to rewind and play the melody from the beginning, all the way to the end (which takes some focus), this often results in silencing the earworm.

For a while, at least …

3. Turn your mind into a complex activity

You can also derail the earworm with some intense verbal activity – a crossword puzzle or a meaningful conversation.

This opposite type of brain function requires passive listening to music.

When you mentally change gears and give your brain something new and complex to think about, that annoying melody often fades into the background.

Treated as a gift, earworm is a gateway to reducing stress. Treated as a nuisance, well, you already know how it always happens.

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