Earworms


This is the song that never ends /
It just goes on and on my friends /
Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was /
And they'll continue singing it, just because /
This is the song that never ends...

In “Musicophilia”, Oliver Sacks spends a few pages on a discussion of “earworms”, those fragments of music that get stuck in your head and refuse to go away. He speculates that they are a modern phenomenon, the result of being submerged in an ocean of music. His support for this notion appears to be that the term “earworm” only came into use in the 1980s. He traces the concept back to Mark Twain’s 1876 story “Punch, Brothers, Punch”, but apparently doesn’t consider the possibility that Twain was building on an idea that had been around for some time.

Wikipedia points out that Edgar Allan Poe mentions earworms as a common phenomenon in his 1845 story “The Imp of the Perverse” – not a major difference chronologically speaking, but if Poe recognized it as common, it suggests that Sacks is incorrect in his assumption of the cause being ubiquitous music or else in his his assumption that ubiquitous music is a recent phenomenon. The San Francisco Exploratorium notes a related phenomenon in an uncited comment that Mozart’s children would torment him by playing incomplete scales on the piano, forcing him to rush downstairs and finish them (shades of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” – toons can’t leave the “Shave and a Haircut” song incomplete).

Still, even if earworms have only become common enough to draw literary and scientific mention in the past 150 years, that ought to be long enough to answer the most important questions about them: Where do they come from, and how do you get rid of them?

Oddly enough, though, there isn’t a whole lot of serious study of earworms. Beaman and Williams (abstract and full report)seem to have done the most definitive studies; they found that the more important a person considers music to be, the more likely they are to experience earworms and the longer they persist. Perhaps Sacks is onto something; after all, those who don’t think music is important will have less music around them. On the other hand, Kellaris has found that 99% of the population has had an earworm at one time or another, so despising music may not be much protection. Neither is avoiding certain kinds of music. There seems to be a consensus that the songs that make an effective earworm vary from person to person, although simplicity and repetition do seem to promote worminess.

There isn’t a whole lot of useful information about getting rid of an earworm once you have it either. Common suggestions are to sing or play a different song, to complete the song that’s stuck, or to distract yourself with something mentally taxing. None of these seem to help in a reliable fashion. Kellaris doesn’t think highly of any of these methods. Anecdotally, my own experience matches Kellaris’ data: I find that using a different song just tends to get the new song stuck in my head; completing the song works for a brief period, then the earworm comes back; and masking the song by doing something else just puts the earworm on my mental back burner: once I stop doing the other work, the earworm pops back to my attention. That’s also consistent with Beaman and Williams’ findings: they report that attempts to get rid of earworms result in longer duration of the earworm episodes.

In short, we don’t really know where earworms come from and we don’t know how to send them back there either. That being the case, my advice is to glory in them. Sing them at the top of your lungs. If you infect enough other people with your earworm, somebody will help you get rid of it. That they may have to use a baseball bat applied to your head should be a small price to pay.

7 thoughts on “Earworms

    • Hmm. From their website:

      earworms comes in two volumes:
      Volume 1 is a survival kit of essential words and phrases for use when travelling abroad on a short business trip of vacation.

      Volume 2 (currently available on CD or Mp3 download) allows you to talk about yourself, past, present and future, express opinions, chat, and even flirt.

      Why do I suspect the majority of their customers skip Volume 1?

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  1. Playing host to earworms and writing about the little critters must run in the family. See http://larrykarp.blogspot.com/2010/08/get-that-worm-out-of-my-ear.html. I won’t get into the question of whether this might or might not be genetic.
    I actually enjoy most of my earworms. They’re tunes I listen to often, so if they want to activate an mp3 player between my ears, why should I complain?
    One of my current favorites, a long-time resident, is been Scott Joplin’s, CLEOPHA, a catchy tune if there ever was one. If you dare, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-nIhV7OsD4, and listen through the three-minute performance. It just might give you three years of good listening.

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    • Oddly enough, I don’t think I’ve ever had a Joplin rag turn into an earworm on me. Not that I’d object if one did. I agree that if it’s an enjoyable piece, it might as well stick around for a while, especially since that particular mp3 player never needs its batteries changed. But I’ve spent far too many hours trying to get rid of some of the most obnoxious “hated it the first time I heard it on the radio” songs!

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  2. We have a ragtime pianist from Wisconsin, Jim Radloff, staying with us right now. He was playing the piano last night, and said, “You know how sometimes you have one of these tunes running through your head, and your can’t stop it. When that happens to me, I go downstairs, play it on the piano, and then it’s gone. A definitive cure if you have a piano and can play it. Otherwise, we’re still searching for relief.

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    • Unfortunately, that doesn’t help a whole lot. I suspect I’m not the only one who doesn’t have a handy piano – or the ability to do anything with it, even if I had one.

      More seriously, I’ve had very limited success getting rid of earworms by playing or singing them through. I’m glad the trick works for Jim, but for the rest of us, as you said the search goes on.

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  3. Pingback: Strange Butter | Koi Scribblings

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