Earworm interview

Hello dear reader

This week I begin my new job as a postdoctoral fellow on a 3 year project investigating the earworm phenomenon. I am sure my readers are well aware by now, an earworm refers to the experience of having a tune or a part of a tune stuck in your head.

To kick off the project I thought I would reproduce for you an interview that I recently completed  for the Spanish popular science magazine  Redes para la Ciencia. The author of the article is Octavi Planells and this interview is reprinted with her permission.

If you would like a PDF copy of the Spanish language article then just drop a comment at the end with your email.

All the best for a productive week ahead 🙂

  1. What happens in our brain when a song is stuck in it? Why does it happen?

A very good question, the simple answer is we don’t know yet. There have been no brain imaging studies of earworms mostly because we are not yet sure how to capture the phenomenon in a lab. You can’t really put someone in a scanner and just hope that an earworm comes along! We do know however that the parts of the brain that are active when we sing are also active when we only think about singing or imagine a tune on purpose. My prediction would be that similar areas of the brain will be active when we get an earworm.

2. Some authors say earworms arise as a kind of “cognitive itch” that can only be scratched by repeating the song. What do you think about this?

I am collecting stories of earworm ‘treatments’ or ‘cures’ at the moment – the tricks that people use to try and expunge them. Repeating the song is one common tactic. But there has been no studies looking at the success of individual strategies. I think the word ‘itch’ is misleading in a sense, as it implies that paying attention to the earworm and ‘scratching’ it will fix it, which is often untrue. And also, it implies that earworms are annoying. In fact, only about 1/3 of earworm episodes are disturbing for people.

3. Sometimes, our memory is involuntary, spontaneous. Does it provide any advantage? Is there any explanation for these unconscious thoughts from an evolutionary point of view?

There are many possible explanations. One of my favourites is from Dortha Berntsen, who has suggested that involuntary memory may act as a tool that takes us back to moments of our lives in order that we might learn from them. A kind of back-up for our conscious will over memory, to make sure that valuable life experiences are not forgotten. However, it is just as possible that spontaneous memories are a consequence of the way our memory works (i.e. the majority of processing is subconscious) but that they serve no purpose of their own.

4. Music seems to be more powerful than words: mentally, one sings a tune without being conscious of it, yet it usually does not happen, for example, with a poem or with a slogan. Why music is catchier than language?

I have thought about this issue many times. My current reasoning for this finding is that music is more deeply encoded than words. Music activates mutiple brain areas (usually more than simply hearing words) and can activate some of the deepest reward centres. And if something has more connections in the mind then it is more likely that it will be re-activiated compared to something with fewer connections.

You must not make the mistake however, of thinking that everyone experiences the world in the same way as you – some people do experience repeating slogans, jokes or rhyming phrases. I call them “word worms”, informally. But it is true that this is less common than musical earworms (Liiikkanen, 2012).

5. What makes a song catchy? Is the effect the same for all the people?

Again, we do not know, yet. But it is true to say that the earworms that we have collected are highly idiosyncratic. When we had a thousand songs in our database, only a handful were mentioned more than once and none of them were mentioned more than about 5-6 times. My instinct is that just about any song can get stuck in the right circumstances. But some characteristics may lead to a higher likelyhood of sticking. Future research will tell us what these factors may be.

6. Some earworms seem to be more persistent than others. Why?

It is likely to be a combination of many factors. In our paper we identified emotional and physical states, as well as level of attention and the situational factors that may all influence the timing, persistence and effect of an individual earworm episode. And a new paper that we have just completed (in review) identifies personality and life experience factors that may influence persistence of earworms.

7. Why are the studies in this field interesting? What do them add to the general knowledge of our brain and psychology?

I am interested in earworms because I am fascinated by memory. I hope that by learning about earworms we can understand more about: 1) how our involuntary memory systems work in both positive (creativity) and negative (rummination and PTSD) ways; and 2) how we can learn to use memory more effectively, for example using music to help children learn more effotlessly or aid those who are suffering from memory problems.

8. How can I remove an earworm from my mind? Is it possible?

I have a long list of potential strategies that people have sent me over the past 2 years. I hope to explore the patterns within them and to uncover the most commonly cited ‘helpful’ techniques. It may never be possible to completely surpress our involuntary memories, and it may not serve us well to do so. But my easiest tip for now is to listen to some different music. Personally, I find it very hard to think about music when I can hear it playing at the same time.


  • Frank Cranmer

    “Why music is catchier than language? I have thought about this issue many times. My current reasoning for this finding is that music is more deeply encoded than words.”

    One possible answer may be that music can perfectly well run on in your head while you do something else (as I’m typing this I’ve got snatches of Richard Strauss’s wind band arrangement of the Dutch National Anthem – which you can find on YouTube – running around in my head). But you can’t (or at any rate, I can’t) type a comment on someone’s blog while reciting a poem – even a poem that I know well. Perhaps, as you suggest, it’s something to do with encoding.

    A parallel might be having the radio on while you’re working. I can perfectly well have Radio 3 burbling away in the background while I’m writing and it provides a pleasant background ambience – but if it’s Radio 4 and it’s something that has a narrative (eg a radio play) I start concentrating on the narrative and getting distracted from what I’m writing.

    Frank Cranmer

  • RITA



  • vicky

    Grazie per le sue gentili parole

    Sono felice di sentire il vostro interesse per il progetto ‘earworm’. Voglio aggiornare il mio sito web qui con tutte le notizie in futuro.

    Migliori auguri

  • Serge

    I can tell you with great certainty that, the genres of music is irrelevant. I have listened to music since before I was born (I thank my mother for exposing me to classical while in the womb) and I have had that phenomena happen to me with all genres of music, even television themes and commercial jingles. I would be happy to answer a questionnaire if it would benefit your study.

  • vicky

    Hi Serge
    Many thanks for your interesting comments and interest in the earworm project. If you have 15 minutes we would be very grateful if you could complete our online survey (address below). There is an option in there to say you would be interested in further studies as well, so we could contact you by email in the future if there were more options for participation.


    All the best,

  • EDH

    Vicky: My 85 year old father hears songs (music and words) regularly (old church hymns from the 30s and 40s, Christmas carols, military songs). He made a list of the songs he hears. If you need to ask him questions or survey him, I know he would love to help. . . Because he is older, I think some doctors think he is crazy, but truly he is not. THANK YOU.

  • vicky

    Many thanks for getting in touch, it is very kind of both you and your father to offer assistance for our research. If you would like to pass on your fathers list then we would be happy to receive it in our research group account at earwormery-at-gmail.com. You can also let him know that our survey is up and running at http://earwormery.wordpress.com/. You can also keep up with our group’s research findings at http://www.gold.ac.uk/music-mind-brain/earworm-project/.
    Wishing you all the very best,

  • Maria

    This site really helped me with the research for my science fair project. Gracias!
    I would really appreciate a PDF copy both in spanish and english if possible.

  • Rita Kárpáti

    Thank you for this nice blog, I find these articles very interesting!
    I just finished reading a book about how different types of memory and related expectations work while listening to music (‘Sweet Anticipation’ by David Huron) and I remember one chapter where he talks about the extreme repetitiveness of music. He said that hardly anything else in human experience contains as much internal repetition as music and listeners need this phenomenon to quickly form their expectations. These repeated patterns will help them predict what is going to happen later in the piece and if the prediction appears to be right, listeners reward themselves with some really positive feelings.
    I am just wondering how the repetitive nature of music is connected to earworms. Are the catchiest passages the ones we can hear many times during the song? Is the ‘earworm-song’ itself something we hear very often? Does it have to be something we expect, with a lot of clichés?

    My other question is about what Frank Cranmer observed. We can focus on other activities while listening to music. I suppose we are always surrounded by background music whether we want it or not…in shopping centres, during radio interviews, films, etc. We focus on something else, but we still hear it…and of course, unconscious learning is super effective and has a great influence on our taste. Do the earworms ‘attack’ more when we don’t listen to the music itself?

    Thank you and sorry for the lenghty post!

    Rita Kárpáti


    Thank you for this very interesting blog.
    I am currently at the beginning stages of my masters degree and finding it difficult to condense the broad topic of earworms into a specific and focused area of research. Any tips for me as to condense this area of study into a clear hypothesis within the psychological phenomena of earworms?

  • vicky

    The topic of earworms is quite small in comparison to most fields of study, there have only really been about a dozen papers on the subject in recent years though these are starting to increase. I recommend reading the latest paper you can get hold of and reading the introduction to see if it sparks any ideas. Try http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0086170 or http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mp.2014.31.4.323. Above all, stick to a question that interests you about earworms – think – what do I want to know that is not answered by this current literature? All the best, Vicky

  • rahul

    Hi vicky, please let me know will medicine can cure earworm as ia m suffering from this since years i am very very depressed from this.

  • vicky

    Hi Rahul. I am afraid that there is no medicince for an earworm. If you are depressed then you should see your GP as soon as possible and get help for your condition – the depression, not the earworms.
    There is only one study of how people try to control their earworms. You might read that and see if there are any behaviours that you can try – some work for people and not others. If you are keen to combat the experience then why not give some of them a try? All the best, Vicky
    (the paper is free to download at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0086170)

  • rahul

    Hi Vicky, thanks for your reply my depression is due to earworm when earworm go my depression will also go.

    one question i am searching everywhere is earworm are natural process of our brain or its a problem? one doctor told me it’s natural and another doc told me that its OCD.which one is correct also i am taking medicine from one psychiatrist to cure earworm.

  • Reno

    as music is noise (harmonic to our ears), could it be possible that earworm is a sort of noise arising in the brain? a recollection of sounds we put in (unconsciously) during the day?

  • anonomus(student)

    Hi Vicky I’m a student and wanted suggestions of other research of the Ear worm effect since i am doing a research paper for Science Fair about the “effect”…..THANKS 🙂