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!


  • “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

  • The Tills are Alive…

    13 04 2010

    Last week, thanks to Twitter, I found out that the British Psychological Society were holding their annual conference this week at the Holiday Inn in Stratford upon Avon, a mere 15 minutes’ drive from my new abode here in the (Warwick)Shire. What’s more, they were holding a free public lecture to kick start it all off. Science on my doorstep? Hurrah! Usually one has to trot off down to That London for such things!

    I must admit, I expected a bigger crowd than the twenty or thirty people who turned up this evening, and I think that most of those in attendance were delegates of the conference. I guess the rest of Stratford, being famous for Shakespeare, doesn’t get as enthused about Science as I do…Shame.

    Our speakers for the evening were Adrian North from Heriot Watt University and David Hargreaves from Roehampton University, colleagues for over 15 years in the field of music psychology. Through fascinating research anecdotes, coupled with musical interludes, the audience was given an insight into the association between human behaviour, consumerism and the power of music.

    Music is played in shops, restaurants, high streets, when we’re “on hold” on the phone, and even in Glastonbury portaloos, but have you ever wondered what purpose it serves? Many people have – piped music in shops and on customer service helplines are often complained about. There is even an anti-piped music pressure group called “Pipe Down” and Chas and Dave, the popular folk musicians, once declared that they would ban piped music in pubs if they were elected as Mayors of London in 2000.

    Research has shown that music can be a very powerful influencer on our behaviour. In 1982, Milliman found that when slow music was played in a supermarket, people spent 15% longer in the shop than when fast music was played, and as a result of this extra browsing time, they spent 33% more money. Similarly, in restaurants, when fast music is played, diners tend to eat fewer courses and eat more quickly; when slower music is played, more food is eaten and more time is taken. This is a tactic actually used by some restaurants to increase table turnaround time during busy periods and to encourage people to stay longer during the quiet times.

    It’s not just the speed of music that has an effect on our behaviour. The type of music played can also send subliminal messages that cause us to think differently about the products we buy and the establishments we frequent. In 1993, Areni and Kim discovered that people bought more expensive bottles of wine at a wine cellar when classical music was played – Mozart, it seemed, gave the cellar a sense of quality and upper class that not felt when pop music was played instead. Similarly, from North and Hargreaves’ own research, more French wine was bought in a Leicestershire supermarket when shoppers were subjected to stereotypically French music, and more German wine was bought when a lederhosen ditty was played.

    Given the powerful effects that music can have on our mood, it is somewhat surprising that some companies get it very wrong. If we’re calling our electricity supplier to give a meter reading or phoning the bank to set up a direct debit, we just want to get it done; we don’t want to listen to a crackly recording of “Greensleeves” or Rod Stewart’s pan-pipe classics. However, “on hold” music may be deliberately chosen to be annoying, since it can be a distraction from the wait. Similarly, calming mood music can relax us so that we are less likely to yell at the operator about why they got our gas bill wrong!

    Dr. North regaled us with many other lively excerpts from this intriguing area of psychology while Professor Hargreaves showcased his musical talents by demonstrating the different types of music that we are subjected to every time we shop. Interestingly, the only music that shoppers seem to have no strong feelings about are Elvis Presley and The Beatles, even when covered in a muzak style! Clearly, even though we don’t always realise it, music can be an important psychological tool. The right music, or even the wrong music, rather than just being an inert soundtrack to our shopping trips, can actually affect our moods, our behaviours and even the choices we make.

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