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.