I Just Can’t Get it Out of My Head: Earworms

26 05 2010

This is a corn earworm, a real organism. Auditory earworms, to my knowledge, are not.

After reading this press release, I’ve been thinking about earworms. Earworms are not real creatures (thank goodness!), they are those songs that you just can’t get out of your head. I get the all the time. In fact, right now, I’ve got “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” by Kylie Minogue firmly wedged in the ol’ gray matter and I just know I’ll be singing it all day. How annoying.

Why do songs “infect” us like this? Professor James Kellaris from the University of Cincinnati has been studying earworms for many years and has developed the “Theory of Cognitive Itch”. Just as some chemicals released in the body can make the skin itch when there is really nothing there, so too, he thinks, certain properties of music can stimulate parts of the brain that bring to mind a certain song, or part of a song. What’s more, just as scratching an itch often just makes it itchier, constantly repeating a song in your head can make it stick even more.

While 98% of people surveyed admit to suffering from earworm, there is evidence to suggest that certain people, particularly musicians, are more prone than others. Kellaris thinks that this suggests that our personal traits, as well as the type of music, can affect the likelihood of suffering this type of cognitive itch.

Going back to the press release I mentioned, Andréane McNally-Gagnon from the University of Montreal’s Psychology department recently carried out a study to find out the most common earworm songs. Bearing in mind that many of the songs are francophone, there aren’t too many on the list that I can identify with, especially the number 1 most infectious song in French-speaking Canada, “Il Fait Rire les Oiseaux”, but I certainly agree on “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, “Singin’ in the Rain” by Gene Kelly and the Muppet’s “Manamana” song. I’d also like to add James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” (also my most hated song!) to the list, and after having enjoyed the Top of the Pops 2 Wham Special a little bit too much on Sunday evening, “Club Tropicana” is up there too!

How do we get rid of an earworm once it’s started? Unfortunately neither Kellaris or McNally-Gagnon offer much advice here. My top tip is to sing “My Old Man’s a Dustman” in your best Cockney accent. Works every time for me!

References:

  • “Hey Jude: Get that song out my head! University of Montreal study on those pesky earworms”, press release, 26th May 2010
  • “Why do songs get stuck in your head?”, from The Straight Dope blog, Oct. 2009
  • Earworms research page, University of Cincinnati College of Business
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