Earworms: Cues keep new songs playing in your head

Nearly all of people experience music playing in their head every week. This music is typically contemporary, lyrical, and represents only a fraction of a song, a study finds. People can be induced to experience involuntary music by musical cues.

Dr. Lassi A. Liikkanen at Aalto University studied “earworms” or “the tune in the brain syndrome,” the experience of a song that continues to play in your head. Over 12,000 internet users participated in the world’s first comprehensive study of the phenomenon of involuntary musical imagery.

Musical activities predispose to involuntary music

The study found that recent activation of musical memory assisted but was not required for an earworm experience. This demonstrates that the last song a person’s brain has processed is more likely to “pop up” afterwards. Contemporary music cued earworms more effectively than older music of the same genre. − The best explanation for why the last song is not always in our minds, is that the traces of the musical memories remain active for some time, maybe days, after the fact, Liikkanen explains.

We're not gonna take it ... no, we aoin't gonna take it!

Earworms are more common among certain types of people. For example, younger people and females are more likely to report earworms. Everyday musical activities, such as listening, rehearsing, or creating music also contributed to more frequent earworms. Surprisingly experiences were not considered annoying. The earworm songs are quite personal and no clear Top10 exists. The commonly nominated songs are biased to contemporary hits, but all types of songs can become earworms.

Research needed to tell apart what is normal with earworm

Their motivation to this research is surprising. − Extensive understanding of this phenomenon can help to draw the line between normal and excessive musical imagery, which can disturb everyday life and requires professional help, Liikkanen says. This study has shown that earworms are a normal, everyday feature of daytime consciousness emerging from our mind and brain. This research suggests that earworms are an integral part of our musical memory and normally nothing to worry about.

These findings from two parallel studies was published in two journals: Psychology of Music and Musicae Scientiae. Lassi Liikkanen is currently collecting more information about this phenomenon with a Facebook application, Earworm Clinic (facebook.com).

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