Launch Earworm Project!

Why do tunes get stuck in our heads?

The Music, Mind and Brain group (my research group) is currently running a number of projects examining the nature and prevalence of earworms.  We are funded by the British Academy and our current projects run in partnership with 6Music (BBC Radio).

This page will be updated regularly with links for studies, findings, and summaries of research progress as the projects advance.

What are earworms?

The term earworm originally comes from a translation of the German word ‘Ohrwurm’. It refers to the experience of having a tune or a part of a tune stuck in your head. Often a person experiencing an earworm has no idea why a tune has popped into their head and has little control over how long it continues.

Earworms are a really common phenomenon: A recent poll suggested over 90% of the population experience them at least once a week, so it seems like having the odd earworm is perfectly normal. But 15% of people classified their earworms as  “disturbing” [1] and in a different study one third of the people described their earworms as “unpleasant” [2] – This means that although earworms are essentially harmless they can get in the way of what you are trying to do and can stop you from thinking straight.

Despite the prevalent nature of earworms and the potential impact they can have on our normal thought processes very little is known about what causes earworms, why they happen to some people more than others and why some tunes are more commonly heard as an earworm than others.

This is where our research comes in!

Our Projects

We are currently running a number of projects funded by the British Academy which aim to answer these questions. Details relevant to each of the studies, as they emerge, will be published below. – Are some tunes naturally more ‘sticky’ because of the way they are constructed?

Project 1: What features do typical earworm music tunes have in common?

Project 2: What do people who frequently experience earworms have in common? – Are musicians or people who love music more vulnerable? What about people with different personality types?

Project 3: What causes earworms? – Are some situations more ‘high risk’? What about the frequency of exposure? Can earworms have a purpose?

‘How can I help?’…

…By telling us about your earworm experiences! Please visit our online survey at http://earwormery.com/ . As a thank you we will enter you in a prize draw to win £150

Also, anytime that you notice an earworm and want to tell us about it you can fill in our short report form which is hosted by 6Music here. Feel free to fill in as many of these as you like – the more the merrier!


[1] Liikkanen L.A. (2008) Music in everymind: Commonality of involuntary musical imagery. Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition. Sapporo, Japan.

[2] Beaman, C. P., & Williams, T. I. (in press) Earworms (“stuck song syndrome”): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts. British Journal of Psychology


  • Emma Loveridge

    I just completed your earwormery survey, but didn’t add (because I didn’t realise there weren’t going to be more questions or an “Any other coments box”) the following:

    As well as getting musical earworms, I quite often have lines of poetry running through my head – particular favourites are John Masefield’s Cargoes and Sea Fever, Thomas Hardy’s The Ruined Maid, Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott and WB Yeats, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. Some of these (but not all) I have learnt by heart in the past, though what triggers them, I am less sure – though again, it seems more likely to happen when my mind isn’t really involved with work or study.

    There are also times when I have verb tables going round in my head, which certainly I have made an effort to learn in the past (over the years, I’ve learnt, to various levels, French, Latin, Spanish, German and Welsh). I’ve particularly noticed these when I’ve been stressed, and although it can be quite comforting and almost meditative to recite them to myself, I have also found myself at 4am with insomnia and having to go and look up, for example, the perfect tense of esse in a grammar book, because I couldn’t remember the third person plural, and it was starting to keep me awake, rather than repetitions keeping other worries from keeping me awake.

    I am sure there is some link between earworms, poetry and verb tables springing into my mind with no conscious trigger, as they may come into my mind at any time, but generally when I am not particularly thinking about other work or talking to people. Rhythm and repetition.

  • Chris

    I just did the survey too after hearing the Radio 4 Material World interview.

    Felt compelled to do so because I think I’m an interesting case: I used to study music, sonic arts; played piano and listened to a lot of very different styles and genres (lived in London at the time too). Now I live in a very isolated rural location in Devon, I turned away from music all together in favour of a more manual craft – carpentry and gave up listening to music after a moment of clarity hit me all those years ago: that I could not concentrate whilst listening to music – I found it hugely invasive (or engaging?) on my life.

    Now I am hugely more clean and free of these distractions… and advertising (I watch TV only once a month at best!) and no earworms! None. Except if I occasionally start to listen to something like a piano tune in order to learn to play it. Then I start reciting it in my head, but I only get so far before I can’t remember the next bit, or how to get to the next bit. These earworms have now gone too since my piano gave up the ghost six months ago

    Interestingly, I have looked into brainwave frequencies (which is much to do with hypnosis) during my Sonic Arts degree (Contact: Tony Gibbs) and this earworm thing would logically be linked to that, don’t you think? Also, looked into “background” music – look up Eric Satie’s “Furniture Music” (musique d’ameublement), this was possibly the first dedicated attempt at blending music into the background (I mean, rather than invading your forground, like most pop songs do) and obviously Brian Eno (Music for Airports etc.) This survey is clearly a huge area for research! Good luck!!

  • vicky

    Many thanks for this really interesting report, which I will report with earnest back to the research group. You are the first person I know to have reported a signficant drop in earworm frequency that coincides with a drop in musical engagment. This would indeed be an interesting topic for a research project. Would you be willing to have an interview for our research project? I would like to document your case properly. We could arrange to travel to you, unless you happen to come to London at some point and could work us into your schedule? Hope to hear from you soon. Vicky

  • Chris

    Hi Vicky,

    Glad you found that of interest. And yes I’d be more than happy to do an interview. I don’t have any plans to visit London though at present. You’re welcome to send someone down (we run a busy B&B if they need a place to stay) or do it over the phone.

    However, since writing the above comment I have noticed that I do have ear-worms on some occasions, usually just after hearing the particular tune. But definitely a marked reduction. The worst ear-worm periods of my life have been when working in places where the radio was on all day long, such as workshops and building sites. This is particularly irritating as 95 percent of the time the music is not to my liking, but it sticks in my head just the same. I don’t read poetry so don’t suffer the extraordinary ear-worms Emma mentions above. But reading poetry one can do out of choice, whereas, listening to music is so often obligatory.

    So… there is a significantly large section of the population who are subject to 40hours or more per week of repeating pop tunes (and radio advertising). Perhaps it’s slightly off-topic, but many of these commercial radio stations are playing only the music which the record labels are paying them to play, hence the repetition… and of some tunes which are “pushed” more so than others. Which begs the question: Do Ear-worms persist more or less in relation to the amount of times the subject hears the original tune in the physical world? And one focus group could surely be those who are in a radio dominated workplace such as a factory or production line. You could even find out from the relevant radio station exactly how many times each tune is played per week and correlate that to a survey given to the staff. Maybe it’s got nothing to do with how catchy the tune is after all???

    On a rather more expansive level, the results (if as I expect) could add to the notion that we are somewhat the product of our surroundings. Or conversely, can we, with much effort, try to become less affected by our surrounding, to somehow block out the noise in order to remain focussed and achieve great things. Do ear-worms increase or decrease focus? And do high achievers suffer from ear-worms as much as low achievers, despite their relative exposure to catchy tunes?

  • Hayley Trower

    I have just completed the earworm questionnaire, but could not think of any particular earworms that I have had recently. However, I have noticed that a majority of my earworms are the strange little dittys that I make up whilst doing chores around the house, which are often very short, repetitive and nonsensical. I tend to sing them out loud and they are usually very annoying for my partner. Once they become earworms, they annoy me a lot more than my usual ‘pop song’ earworms! Also, I have noticed that earworms usually appear whilst I’m doing something repetitive and my mind is able wander. I agree with Emma’s comment that rhythm and repetition are the major points.

  • brian

    Just completed the survey but need to add a couple of things:
    Have been having earworms recently in the form of football chants- ok I go to the occassional match and watch on TV but am not a 24/7 fan- and the chant that gets stuck in my head is for a team I dont support !!!!
    Also I notice that sometimes on waking -or in that hypnagogic state just before waking- a song will start to form like a chick coming out of an egg, so that by the time I am up it is a fully formed earworm-often a song I haven’t literally heard for years.
    Also sometimes (okay three things) get Ear Words ie a random word that has no apparent meaning in the context of my day or what I am doing at the time stuck in a loop in my head-these come and go with the same “gestation” period as visual migraines (which I used to have) and fade out after a while with just the root of the word left.
    All the best

  • brian

    Often the frequency and length of the earwords can be often be reduced by drinking strong coffee-another possible link to the migraine theory.