Have you experienced an earworm? The name is not very appealing but perhaps well describes what it feels like to have that tune wriggling around in your brain.
Every now and then there is that song that sticks in the head and won’t go away. Often referred to as earworm or brain worm, it can be fine for a while but eventually, it can be annoying and distracting. But you can learn how to get a song out of your head.
Here are some tips on how to get that infectious tune out of your head.
How to get a song out of your head
The phenomenon of songs that get stuck in the head and go round and round has been studied, researched, polled and reported and commented on for many years in the media. Here are some headlines from the press:
- The cautiously pretty title track is the year’s most penetrating earworm. Sunday Times 2011
- Once the earworm wriggles into your brain, it is impossible to shift. The Times. 2017
- This retro track has an earworm of a chorus. The Sun. 2016
- Huge choruses, great harmonies and rock ‘n roll permeate this earworm infested stormer. The Sun. 2014
- An earworm is a piece of music that sticks in your mind. Sunday Times. 2013
- This is a fun and breezy earworm. The Sun. 2015
What is it called when you can’t get a song out of your head?
This is called an earworm and here are some facts about them…
- According to research by the American Psychological Association, earworm songs usually have a fast-paced tempo and an easy to remember topline. They tend to be played on the radio more than other songs.
- 98% of individuals experience earworms.
- Mark Twain wrote a story, A Literary Nightmare, about a repetitive jingle that one can only get rid of by transferring it to another person.
- Another name for earworm is Involuntary Musical Imagery or INMI.
Why do you get songs stuck in your head?
People tend to get earworms when doing tasks that don’t require total concentration, like doing the dishes or ironing. Emotions can trigger songs associated with certain times, people and memories. Songs, or parts of songs, can creep up on you when you’re feeling good and cheerful, but equally when you’re in a dreamy or inattentive state.
When a song is stuck in your head…
Let the song flow
Most earworms are just bits of a song, a few catchy lines or a chorus. Round and round it goes but it’s only part of the song. So try listening to the whole song from beginning to end or sing it through. Instead of those few lines or stuck sections, allowing the entire song to run through may complete the circle and the natural flow.
Remember the lyrics
Often those niggly catchy lines are accompanied by the wrong words, or only partly remembered words. Forgotten lyrics are replaced by made-up words, so learning the entire song correctly and singing it can help the brain to process it, rather than getting it stuck. Sometimes playing the music on an instrument can break the cycle.
Use distracting tactics
Crosswords and other puzzles that require concentration can focus the mind on what you’re doing. Watching television takes your attention to what is on screen. Some studies have shown that chewing gum interferes with the ability to hear the music in your head.
If you enjoy mathematics, solving tricky calculations could work. And relaxing techniques such as yoga can help the brain relax and be calm.
Sing a cure song
Singing a totally different song can deflect from the one rotating in your head. A study was done into “cure” tunes to find which were the most effective, with some surprising results. God Save The Queen and Happy Birthday To You featured regularly in the study, as did Karma Chameleon by Culture Club. Two other recommended songs were Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel and Kashmir by Led Zeppelin. The A-Team theme was also chosen, which is rather ironic as the introduction to the programme was “if you have a problem, if no one else can help, you can hire the A-Team.
Are earworms dangerous?
Generally speaking, earworms are not considered to be dangerous, in fact, they can be quite pleasant. It is even thought that they can be part of the brain’s creative process. Sometimes described as musical obsessions or stuck song syndrome, most people experience this at some time, although in some cases it can be unwanted and intrusive. The phenomenon of having a tune constantly circling through the mind can be distressing, particularly when connected to obsessive-compulsive disorder. In most cases, earworms are not serious and disappear after a short spell.
Waking up with a song in your head
Although earworms can pop up randomly, some people find that they often wake up with a song already in the head. Occasionally it could be related to a dream, or late-night music on the radio before falling asleep. The brain can cleverly attach to a word that triggers a memory of a certain song which is processed to the memory during the night, thereby waking up with that song implanted in the mind. It’s not that unusual and it’s not always in the mornings. It’s not uncommon to wake in the middle of the night with a song stuck in your head, but for most, it’s a short-lived annoyance.
Why do bad songs get stuck in your head?
The brain’s jukebox
Although songs stuck in the head are known by many other names, such as INMI, earworms, brain worms, a personal jukebox would be another suitable description. The difference to a normal jukebox is that with this one you don’t get to choose the tunes. They might not even be any of your favourites. The brain’s jukebox has a mind of its own. It chooses the songs which then get stuck but fortunately most of the time they are pleasant tunes, and just letting them flow can end the repetitive cycle.
What does it mean when you can’t get a song out of your head?
Earworm studies and research
A team in partnership with BBC 6 Music and other radio stations has surveyed thousands of people to find triggers that cause earworms to start playing. A detailed analysis was made of the information and the most frequently cited circumstance was recent exposure to a certain song. We are constantly in contact with music, often subliminally, in shops, gyms, restaurants, radio, other people singing and television, in addition to the music we choose and play ourselves. But association with places, people, situations, even certain words can be a trigger.
Another notable theme in the survey was the way earworms start when we’re bored, asleep or in a low attention state, spontaneously filling the brain with the songs. Another research study showed that while men and women experience this equally often, earworms tend to last longer for women and irritate them more. Statistics in that particular research suggested that songs with lyrics account for about 73% of earworms and instrumental music only 7%. Engaging working memory in tasks such as Sudoku, puzzles or reading a novel can help to stop the recurrence.
Having a song stuck in your head can mean that the writers, composers and singers have done a good job, as the memory latches on to them and subconsciously want to keep replaying them. There are, of course, exceptions, where a song is so annoying or irritating that it sticks in the brain for the wrong reason. Many polls and surveys have looked into which songs are the most frequent ear triggers. Bad Romance by Lady Gaga featured regularly, perhaps the “oh ooh rah-rah ooh la la” lyrics make it easier to get stuck in the head.
Suitably, Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head seems to be securely stuck in many people’s heads! Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey is a catchy tune that was often cited, as was Somebody I used To Know by Gotye. It will possibly come as no surprise that Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was high on the list, once heard, never forgotten. Other polls have produced lists that included Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas and The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 miles).
Let the song play – don’t try to fight it
Another suggestion from research is that instead of trying to get rid of the earworm, you just let it play in your head and run its course. Identify the song in your head, then look online for the full and complete version. Play it and listen in a focused way, without doing something else that will distract your attention. When the song is finished, immediately do some other activity that absorbs your attention and doesn’t let your mind wander. Finally, listen to some of your favourite well-known songs. By then, hopefully, the earworm will be gone.
Why can’t I get this song out of my head?
In 2016 a study found that many earworms had common characteristics, such as upbeat tempos. Some songs such as Moves Like Jagger and Somewhere Over The Rainbow have big up and down leaps in notes, and these are the types of songs that often become stuck in the head. The pitch and rhythm of the melody can contribute to the catchiness and seem to stick more easily.
Singing along with an earworm
One of the suggested tips for getting a song out of your head is not to fight it, but rather to sing along with it. If the Macarena starts playing in your head on a loop, perhaps dancing along as well as singing will clear it. It’s certainly upbeat and cheerful. If the song in your head happens to be Y.M.C.A. you could do the moves. If you’re driving or shopping or walking along a street, hopefully, the song that pops into your head will be something more laid back and easy to listen to.
Tools to identify the song in your head
There are times when a song is stuck in your head but you can’t identify it. The frustration is real when you can’t remember the name of the song when you can’t get the tune out of your mind but you can’t even remember the lyrics. One suggested way of getting rid of an earworm is to sing the whole song through to the end, but that’s impossible to do if all you have is parts of a tune but no words and no title. Most people have experienced this but now there may be an answer with a ‘hum to search’ tool.
Google has launched a Shazam for humming tool, which allows you to hum a tune into a phone to work out what song it is. You don’t need the lyrics, just the tune which is stuck in your head. In the search app you tap a mic icon and ask “what’s this song?” or click the search a song button. You can hum, whistle or sing the tune for at least 10 seconds and the huge database will present you with a list of possible songs. You don’t need to be pitch perfect or a great singer, it can work even if you’re tone-deaf. A song’s melody is similar to a fingerprint, it each has a unique identity. So there’s no need to be plagued by the frustration of not being able to figure out which song is playing in your head.
Song stuck in head anxiety
A cure for earworms
Earworms can be maddeningly annoying, playing over and over in the head. Bits of pop songs, television commercial jingles, songs we like, songs we hate. Oddly enough it shows that we don’t always have conscious control over the brain. Music with repeating rhythms and easy to sing may make a tune more likely to get stuck. Exposure to music can bring strong memories to the surface which can stay in the musical memory system. Earworm experiences aren’t always negative or unpleasant but there are times when we just want that tune to go away. There are many strategies for clearing the stuck song. Reciting a poem, story, prayer or even words of another song will use mental faculties that support verbal activity and knock out the sticky tune.
Challenging the mind, and filling it with tasks that require concentration is a logical way to block out the earworm. Try listing the capital cities of the world or doing a jigsaw puzzle or maths puzzle. Anything that absorbs the mind. Humming a different tune often helps. Coping strategies that help to harness musical memories can be useful in supporting other skills such as language learning. Research is ongoing into how our involuntary memory systems work and how we can learn to use memory more effectively.
Why do you get songs stuck in your head?
Recurring tunes that stick in the mind happen to most of the population and they are often catchy tunes. Hearing a melody on the radio can set it off for the rest of the day. And it can pop up spontaneously for days afterwards.
Why is a stuck song called an earworm?
There are various explanations. The actual English word is very old – apparently appearing around 1,000 years ago. It was another name for earwig, from the incorrect belief that they crawled into ears. The German word ‘Ohrwurm’ began to be used in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
How do you get songs out of your head? Let us know in the comments below.