Hearing management

Updated 11 December 2017

How to get rid of that song in your head

That song that plays on repeat in your head for what seems like hours on end is known as an earworm but luckily for you, scientists may have found a way to put an end to them.

Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ and The Beatles ‘She loves you’ are just two songs scientists have shown can trigger an earworm – a song that plays over and over in your head on what feels like a never-ending loop.

The good news however, is that these same scientists believe they have found a way to break the loop before you go crazy. 

A group of British scientists known as the Music, Mind and Brain group formed the Earworm Project to find out what it is about certain tunes which gets them stuck in our heads – termed Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI), or an ‘earworm’.

According to them, earworms are a fairly common phenomenon affecting up to 90% of people. Yet despite this there is still relatively little known about their cause and why some people suffer more than others. 

What causes earworms?

Following extensive research of more than 3 000 earworm reports which the researchers gathered from the general public, they found that there are a few possible causes for earworms. 

Firstly it’s not only our almost constant exposure to music and songs outside our control – think shops, petrol stations, even some public toilets – which influences songs getting stuck in our heads. 

According to researchers from the psychology department at Goldsmiths University of London, other factors also play a part. Such as your current mood and what state of attention you’re in, involuntary cognitive processes, and even the structure of the music which can affect the type of music we hear. 

The type of music was also analysed by the researchers, who used computational methods to examine the structure of the 1 000 tunes that were reported as earworms.

They then compared these 'control songs' and compared their musical structure. What they were looking for was something which made one tune more ‘sticky' than another.

Unfortunately for earworm sufferers though, initial research seems to hint that different people have different ‘sticky’ songs.

Although it’s most often popular songs which make the best earworms as it’s the same infectious catchiness of the tune that makes it a hit song which gets it stuck in your head.

Get out my head!

The most important question is how does one get rid of an earworm once it’s found its way into your head? 

One study showed that chewing gum directly after listening to a catchy song could stop you thinking about the tune and getting it stuck in your head.  The study, conducted by Dr Philip Beaman, a cognitive scientist and experimental psychologist at the University of Reading, was titled Want to block earworms from conscious awareness? B(u)y gum! 

In the study the researchers concluded that it was the motor of activity of chewing gum, which may be distracting enough to interfere with short term and verbal memory so the song doesn’t get stuck.

If that doesn’t work however, other suggestions include listening to another catchy tune (which may put you at risk of merely replacing the tune with another one) or doing something which forces your mind to focus on a task, such as a Sudoko puzzle or an anagram. The key, Beaman says, is to make sure it’s challenging but not too tough that your brain doesn’t full engage and forget about the earworm.

And considering research shows that 90% of people experience earworms regularly, if they really bother you perhaps it’s time to keep some chewing gum handy or a crossword puzzle book near the radio.

Read more:

Idols. Are some people really just tone deaf?

Is inaudible noise making you deaf?

The 10 worst jobs for your ears


Ask the Expert

Hearing Expert

Minette Lister graduated with a Bachelor of Communication Pathology (Audiology) from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville in 2015. Thereafter, she completed her compulsory year of community service at Phoenix Assessment and Therapy Centre in Durban. In 2017, Minette started working for Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. She is passionate about working with children and adults to diagnose and manage hearing loss using state of the art technology. Minette offers hearing screening programmes for newborn and high-risk babies, as well as school-aged children, in order to decrease the incidence of late or unidentified hearing loss.

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