Interviewing earworms

I have been transcribing interviews most of this week. It is all part of the earworm study I am running at the Music, Mind and Brain group at Goldsmiths University of London, where I work. Some kind souls have given up an hour of their time to be interviewed about their earworm experiences (when music gets stuck in your head) and it is now my job to get all those tapes down onto paper. I have had a few thoughts about the process while I was typing and I thought I would take a quick break to share them with you.

The reason we (my lovely research assistant Sagar and I) decided we needed an interview study was because people were getting in touch with us after having completed our online questionnaire at earwormery.com and saying ‘ I really liked answering the questions, but I feel as though I didn’t get to tell you everything I wanted to say about my earworms’. This is natural in an online questionnaire I suppose; we have to make it short enough so it isn’t boring and we must get specific  information to help us examine our hypotheses.

The thing about the earworm phenomenon is, yes there are some general rules that apply to everyone and yes, it is really interesting to look at those patterns as they give us fascinating insights into how our unconscious mind works; but at the same time it seems that everybody’s experience of earworms is a little bit different. So the idea of the interview study was to dig down more into these differences and find out what it is about us as people that drives our individual experience of this phenomenon.

Now I should start out by saying I was no expert in interview technique before this study started (I had done it once during my masters course) and Sagar and I spent months researching how you design interviews, right down to the exact wording of the questions. It is a fascinating area really, and I can recommend having a go at this type of design to anyone. It gives you a unique insight into the power of words and the importance of asking open questions. The golden rule is of course, you mustn’t lead people. And even the strongest of people can be surprisingly easy to lead with words. We follow conversation as social animals, it is only natural. But in an interview you must give the person enough prompts to be able to think through their experience and describe it to you, without altering their memory or leading them to skip over what might be a really important insight.

It is a delicate piece of construction, building an interview schedule, and I have the utmost respect for people who devote their lives to this type of enquiry. Some people might look down their nose at it and think ‘well, it’s just not scientific – where are the numbers?!’ – But I would disagree. All scientific enquiries should start with a hypothesis – and what is a hypothesis if not a piece of inspiration, or an idea? A prediction based on what you believe to be true about the world around you. And the output of interviewing a few people gives you the chance to produce a hypothesis (perhaps for number-like enquiry later on) that is based on different people, on collective experience. In other words it is a darn sight more eye-opening than single person introspection!

Another thing I want to say about an interview study is that transcription is hard work. If you have done it then you know what I am talking about. It will test your attention span to the limit! Not because what people say is uninteresting, far from it. But rather because it takes so much time to type every word, sigh, laugh and breathe that is uttered in an hour interview. People in the know apparently estimate that it takes 4-6 hours to transcribe a one hour interview. In relaity it takes me a good couple of days doing it on and off because there is no way on Earth I could do it for 4 hours straight!

A lot of people said to me, ‘just pay someone to do it for you’. A good point. But then I read in the books (see links below for advice on books I found helpful) that transcription is an essential part of analysis in an interview study. And you know what, they are right. As the “transcriber” you get to know the words of that interview inside out and there is a stream of conscious thought that follows along as you type. I add comments to the side of my document (using the track changes function) that allows me to note every thought or idea I had at the time I was transcribing. Maybe something the person was saying relates to something they said earlier; you can make the link then and there. Maybe they contradict themselves, or appear to be evolving their ideas as they discuss your questions; you can make the note as this pops out of the page. In essence, this process forms the first stage of coding qualitative data; working out what is being said, what themes are emerging as important, and what aspects of the experience appear to be universal and which are individual.

I am halfway through transcribing our earworm interviews, and as much as the transcription work is hard I must say I am finding it fascinating.  I think there is a natural human tendency to make the attribution error that everyone sees, hears, and experiences the world in the same way that we do. After all, we only know what it is like to be one human being. But the world is a different place for everyone! Every person we have interviewed has had a unique aspect to their earworm experience.

Sagar and I always come away from each interview amazed and inspired. There really is a fountain of insight and knowledge available about everyday cognitive phenomena if you just go out there and interview a handful of people. And there are kind, helpful people who are willing to share their experiences, and are happy to do so if only given the chance.

To all my interviewees I say an enormous thank you, from both myself and Sagar. We really enjoyed meeting you and your comments have been so very helpful in our study of earworms. Every one of you has contributed a piece to the puzzle and as a result we are getting closer to working out why music gets stuck in our heads.

And thanks to my good friend Dr Anneli Hakke who gave such good advice.

PLEASE VISIT EARWORMERY.COM! ( and tell your friends too!)

Some books we found helpful


  • Graham Mather

    I have just heard you on R2 talking about earworms. I have one that is persistent, and it’s become a joke between me and my partner. We are big Eurovision fans and often dug out the “best of” album. The song that stuck was the 1975 winner “Ding-a-dong”. When either of us got an earworm, usually triggered by the radio, TV or a discussion about a song/artist, we would use “Ding-a-dong” to get rid of the new earworm. I now find that I can do this at will and because I’m so used to “Ding-a-dong” it doesn’t hang around long after doing its job. I hope this helps you. I did notice that Chris Evans got your name wrong. How annoying! Good luck with your research.

  • vicky

    Hi Graham
    Many thanks for taking the time to write a comment and for the kind words. Everyone gets my name wrong – I am used to it! I will certainly add your fascinating cure to our list.
    All the best,

  • Debra

    Hello, I found your Radio 2 interview fascinating. I wanted to tell you something that really intrigues me with my earworm! I wake up in the morning with a song in my head – even before my eyes are open. While I am in the bathroom the song words go round and around continuously. However… (this is the annoying bit) I realise later on when I think back that during the day I do not know the words of the song! Does that make sense? In the mornings my subconsious knows all the words and I think to myself “i didnt know I knew all of that song” but a couple of hours later I could not if my life depended on it remember the song words apart from chorus parts. I will continue to look at your website, I didnt realise how common earworms were! Many thanks.

  • vicky

    Thanks for the kind comment Debra. I have heard similar stories in the past, and yes it is really fascinating. I’m looking forward to learning and communicating more findings in the future. All the best! Vicky