Why do tunes get stuck in our heads?
The Music, Mind and Brain group is currently running a number of projects examining the nature of earworms. We are funded by The Leverhulme Trust and our projects run in partnership with 6Music (BBC Radio).
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"  and in a different study one third of the people described their earworms as "unpleasant"  - 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!
What features do typical earworm music tunes have in common? - Are some tunes naturally more 'sticky'?
We have completed the first run of this project using over 1000 reports of earworm tunes. We used computational methods to analyse the structure of the tunes that were reported as earworms and then compared these tunes to 'control songs' to see which parts of the musical structure make a tune more 'sticky'. Our model is continuing to grow and develop in strength as we get more and more reports. To keep you updated, we can tell you that the current model can predict whether a tune has the potential to be an earworm with over 80% success. We are currently re-analysing our dataset to update our model and very soon we will have our first paper on this subject.
We presented our latest findings on this project at the 12th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC) in July 2012 in a specially dedicated symposium run by Dr Vicky Williamson. The paper was presented by Dr. Vicky Williamson and Dr. Daniel Muellensiefen.
What do people who frequently experience earworms have in common? - Are musicians or music lovers more vulnerable? What about people with different personality types?
We have completed the first run of this project using nearly 2000 reports of earworm tunes. We used statistical techniques to determine whether certain types of people were more likely to experience earworms. To keep you updated, we have found some fascinating relationships between personality and earworms.Our first paper on this subject has been submitted for publication and we hope to provide further details soon.
Our PhD student Georgina Floridou presented our latest findings on this project at the 12th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC) in July 2012. Her paper was titled 'Contracting earworms: The roles of personality and musicality'.
What causes earworms? - Are some situations more 'high risk'? Can earworms have a purpose?
We have completed their analyses of over 3000 earworm reports provided by the general public using our questionnaire and 6 Music contacts. To summarise, the results of this analysis have shown that while the music in our environment has an effect on our earworm experiences, especially when we hear music repeatedly and outside of our control, this is not the only factor that leads to spontaneous musical imagery. The reports we have received highlighted the importance of spreading activation in memory (both personal memory and memory for simple knowledge and facts), as well as the effects of mood and attention states on the type of music that we hear in our heads.
What cures earworms? - We have built a database of 'earworm cures', supplied by kind members of the public. Is there a way to control your earworms? Do some people have a trick for silencing the stuck tune? Is there a melody or sound that you can play or imagine that knocks out an earworm without itself getting stuck?
We have completed the analysis of over 1000 accounts of how people react to and try to control their earworms. We have found that although most people tend to passively accept their earworms and let them fade out on their own, a significant proportion of people also engaged in active coping strategies, with varying degrees of success. The most popular coping strategies were to engage with the earworm tune, often by listening to the full tune aloud, and distraction from the earworm tune, most commonly by using other music or verbal material.
Our paper on this topic has now been published in the journal PLOSONE and can be freely accessed, titled 'Sticky Tunes: How Do People React to Involuntary Musical Imagery?'.
The research team
A featuring in the New Yorker : Anatomy of an earworm
Earworm Paper 1 (Project 3) on the British Psychological Society Blog:
Learn more about our research group
Learn about our Masters in Music, Mind and Brain
- 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.
- Beaman, C. P., & Williams, T. I. (2010) Earworms ("stuck song syndrome"): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts. British Journal of Psychology, 101(4), 637-653.