September 15, 2008 in Features

Song bouncing around in your head?

Scientists have dubbed auditory annoyance an ‘earworm’
Washington Post
 
File Staff illustration photo

File Staff illustration
(Full-size photo)

It happens to all of us: We hear a song or a jingle and then it keeps running through our brains over and over and over, sometimes to the point where we wish we could forget it.

Researchers have given the phenomenon a name: earworms. Nobody knows exactly why they get stuck in our heads, but there are some theories.

The first study on earworms showed that the kind of music most likely to get stuck in your head is simple and repetitive. In addition, the lyrics are usually unexpected.

Think about the words to “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Here’s the chorus: “Who let the dogs out (woof, woof, woof, woof).” Repeat three times.

No wonder that song is a common earworm! (Some other popular earworms, which we list here only so that you can perhaps mention them in passing to siblings, parents and teachers and thus infect them, include “We Will Rock You,” “Y.M.C.A.” and “It’s a Small World.”)

The researcher who conducted the study on earworms was James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Business. He learned that any song can become an earworm for some people.

It turns out that musicians are more likely to get them than nonmusicians, and women get them more than men. For some reason, people who worry a lot are more earworm-prone.

This suggests that the music alone is not responsible for an earworm. Individual traits and brain design seem to play a big role, too.

Earworms can get stuck in our heads for a few minutes or even a few days. The University of Cincinnati Web site on Kellaris and earworms offers a few remedies to stop the repetition in your brain.

•Try to replace it with another, perhaps less annoying song.

•Do something to distract yourself.

•Walk to a different tempo from the one in the earworm.


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