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How earworms crawl into your head

Monday - 1/20/2014, 7:39am  ET

brain xray (thinkstock)
Finally, an explanation of how earworms get in your head. (Thinkstock)

How does a song become an earworm?

Finally, an explanation from researcher Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis on songs you can't get out of your head.

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WASHINGTON - Warning: this story contains songs you can't get out of your head.

Earworms - derived from the German Ohr (ear)+Wurm (worm) are songs that somehow crawl into your brain, where they are replayed ad nauseum.

"For many people, earworms are pretty annoying," says Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, associate professor and Director of the Music Cognition Lab at University of Arkansas, and author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind.

Margulis says a recent study shows more than 90 percent of participants reported being seized by an earworm in the past week, and a quarter of those people said they had earworms several times a day.

The question is, "Why?"

"We don't really have control over what gets stuck in there," says Margulis. "It might be something we love, it might be something really annoying."

Current songs often cited as earworms are "The Fox (What Does The Fox Say)," by Ylvis, "Work B**ch," by Britney Spears and "We Can't Stop," by Miley Cyrus.

Vintage earworms might be "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," by Steam, "Hey Jude," by The Beatles or "The Night Chicago Died," by Paper Lace.

"It doesn't really matter whether you like a song or not," Margulis says.

She says part of what is infuriating about earworms is they usually are tiny snippets.

"Often it's the tune, the chorus, the part you hear most frequently in a song," she says.

"It might be nice if maybe the whole song played through, but that's not the way it normally happens. Normally it's just a fragment and it keeps repeating," Margulis says.

When earworms strike

Margulis says earworms often burrow while a person is standing in line at the post office, or filling in some paperwork.

"You tend to get earworms when you're not really paying attention, when your mind is kind of wandering," she says.

In effect, part of what makes rhythmic songs so unforgettable is the listener is able to predict what comes next.

"The same part of our brain that underlies listening to music with a beat, is the part of the brain that underlies habit formation," says Margulis.

Earworms become part of muscle memory, she says.

"You've really acquired the habit, for better or worse."

While not proven scientifically, Margulis says thinking of another song can free a victim from an earworm's grip.

"It's not one that's been buried so deep and has ensnared you so profoundly," she says.

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