Earworms are fun, aren’t they?
Let’s play a little game.
For a few seconds, think of a really catchy song. Something that makes you tap your toes and hum along, regardless of whether you hate it or love it.
A suggestion: MMMbop by Hanson.
Now count to 10 while thinking about the song. (Trust me, there’s reason for this.)
Ok, now stop thinking about the song.
Are you successful? No?
Now that’s an earworm.
They’re everywhere. Earworms are obnoxious, even with songs you enjoy, they’re distracting and they can really ruin a morning.
So what’s an earworm and why do they happen to good people?
The first popular reference of an earworm, commonly defined as a song or musical phrase that cannot easily be dismissed in the listener’s ear, came from a 1978 novel called “Flyaway” by Desmond Bagley.
But the concept has existed much longer than that.
Check a list of earworms and you’ll find Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You,” released in 1975 and 1977, respectively. Others include Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and Pharrell’s “Happy.”
In his 1876 story “A Literary Nightmare,” Mark Twain writes about a jingle that hearer can only be freed from by passing it along to someone else, a plot concept also found in Alfred Bester’s novel “The Demolished Man,” written in 1953.
Researchers have found there’s a formula that makes songs more susceptible to planting themselves in your brain and not letting go.
Bede Williams of the University of St. Andrews’ School of Philosophy is among a team of researchers who found five key ingredients for an effective earworm song: predictability, rhythmic repetition, melodic potency, surprise and the listener’s feelings about the tune.
“If you look at the songs which emerged from the research, they all have a distinctive rhythmic fingerprint. If we remove the melody, they’re all still recognizable by their rhythm alone,” Williams told NME in 2016.
Even more earworm science
To geek out even further – and you know we’re going to – Dartmouth College researchers used a kind of MRI to study brain activity when a person is subjected to a really catchy song.
“(T)he team discovered that when participants listened to a song or song fragment, fMRI showed activation of a brain region called the left primary auditory cortex, which is the region associated with hearing. This brain region was also activated when participants thought of the song or tried to make up parts of the song that were not played. This suggests that an earworm may be ‘fed’ by the memory mechanism of the auditory cortex,” according to an article published by News Medical Life Sciences.
Want to get MMMbop out of your head? There are ways.
Pick up a crossword puzzle or Sudoku.
Listen to a different radio station or talk radio channel.
Or just give up and listen to the whole blasted song, complete the phrase and get on with your life.
By the way… you’re probably not showing symptoms of OCD
And for all those hypochondriacs out there, there’s research for you too: Earworms are fully and 100% normal and NOT an indicator of OCD. Something like 98% of the population gets to deal with this lovely little broken record, according to the British Journal of General Practice. “The more one tries to suppress the song, the more their impetus increases, a mental process known as ironic process theory. Those most at risk for (stuck song syndrome, another name for earworms) are females, youth and patients with OCD,” but unless the song is making you physically ill, anxious or impairing your ability to live your life, you’re probably ok.