Psychology: Song stuck in your head? You’ve got an earworm.
Updated: Sep 16
This musical creepy-crawly might be part of a song that repeats on a loop or a tune that keeps playing in your mind.
It is highly likely that you answered ‘yes’ to the question above, earworms are known to be experienced by most people and often on a daily basis.
What triggers these earworms to start buzzing around in our heads? Researchers have found 4 main triggers of the musical memory system related to earworms: 1, 2
• musical exposure → a song you’ve heard recently or many times before
• associations → a particular place, person or object that is linked with a specific song
• affect → what mood you’re in, if you’re stressed or surprised
• low-attention → if you have little on your mind & it starts to wander or dream
Is there any way to reduce these earworms when they start to become a real pest? One research team found that chewing gum may be a helpful solution! The idea behind the gum-chewing was to occupy mouth movements involved in articulation (which we use to sing along to music).3 Another line of evidence suggests that earworms may decrease during tasks with a high cognitive load (‘difficult tasks’) especially
So perhaps reciting complex poetry might be a useful form of pest control. Who would’ve
guessed? But maybe you enjoy your musical friends and are happy for them to take residence in your cozy mind. Research suggests that body movement and vocalization 5
as well as idleness 2 are common precursors to earworms. So, swaying, foot tapping and singing along to your favourite song or simply having a relaxing hour are likely to enhance the number of earworms experienced.
Who is most likely to experience these musical creepy-crawlies? Women have reported a greater proportion of earworms than men in some studies.6
Another factor influencing the number of earworms experienced is personality, with subclinical obsessive-compulsive (OC) traits linked to earworm disturbance and frequency. 7 Two Big Five personality traits are also linked with earworm experiences, namely, neuroticism and openness to experience.8 Neuroticism refers to one’s level of emotional reactions such as: anxiety, anger, depression, self-consciousness, impulsivity, and vulnerability. Openness to experience refers to the domain of personality involving:
imagination/fantasy, aesthetic sensitivity, attention to inner feelings, intellectual curiosity and preference for variety. Finally, music students are also more likely to experience earworms than the non-musically trained.8 However anyone with higher exposure to music is likely to be a target of these lyrical worms.
What kinds of songs make the best earworms? Whilst research is still limited in this area, some songs just appear ‘catchier’ with lyrics that are easy to remember. More familiar songs may also be particularly prone to becoming an earworm experience, possibly because they are better ‘stamped into your mind. 8
Now you know a little more about the triggers of these musical bugs, how to squish them and how to attract them, who is most likely to be targeted by a musical infestation, and what kinds of songs make the best earworms.
Author: C. Bryan-Ellis from The Conscious Health Clinic
1 Williamson, V. J., & Müllensiefen, D. (2012) Earworms from three angles: Situational antecedents, personality predisposition and the quest for a musical formula. Paper presented at the ICMPC-ESCOM 12, Thessaloniki, Greece.
2 Williamson, V. J., Jilka, S. R., Fry, J., Finkel, S., Müllensiefen, D., & Stewart, L. (2012). How do “earworms” start?Classifying the everyday circumstances of involuntary musical imagery. Psychology of Music, 40(3), 259–284. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735611418553
3 Beaman, C. P., Powell, K., & Rapley, E. (2015). Want to block earworms from conscious awareness? The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68(6), 1049–1057. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2015.1034142
4 Floridou, G. A., Williamson, V. J., & Stewart, L. (2017). A Novel Indirect Method for Capturing Involuntary Musical Imagery under Varying Cognitive Load. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 70(11), 2189–2199. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2016.1227860
5 McCullough Campbell, S., & Margulis, E. H. (2015). Catching an Earworm through movement. Journal of New Music Research, 44(4), 347–358. https://doi.org/10.1080/09298215.2015.1084331
6 Liikkanen, L. A. (2012c). Musical activities predispose to involuntary musical imagery. Psychology of Music, 40(2), 236-256. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735611406578
7 Müllensiefen, D., Fry, J., Jones, R., Jilka, S., Stewart, L., & Williamson, V. J. (2014). Individual differences predict patterns in spontaneous involuntary musical imagery. Music Perception, 31(4), 323–338. https://doi.org/10.1525/mp.2014.31.4.323
8 Liikkanen, L.A., & Jakubowski, K. (2020). Involuntary musical imagery as a component of ordinary music cognition: A review of empirical evidence. Psychonomic Bulletin Review. 27(2), 1195-1217. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-020-01750-7