How can I get rid of a song stuck in my head?
For about a month after I moved into my current flat, I had the song Common People by Pulp stuck in my head. Why? Because we’d rented a flat above a shop. (I had already cut my hair and got a job, thanks for asking.)
Sometimes I’ll get a song stuck in my head for a month like that. Other times it will be for a few minutes or an hour. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a song I hate or a song I love (or at least a song I loved before it got stuck in my head). Some songs get stuck in my head a lot, but others don’t: Missing by Everything But The Girl is a repeat offender, but I don’t recall ever hearing Nicki Minaj singing Super Bass on a loop, despite having listened to it many more times. Some people can have songs stuck in their head more or less continuously [i]! What the heck is going on, and more importantly: how can I make a stuck song go away?
“Anyway, here’s Wonderwall.”
There are lots of different ways and reasons that we might get music stuck in our mind’s ear, as it were. There have been rare occasions when I’ve been learning a song and have returned to it again and again voluntarily because I want to remember the words and the tune for when I later sing it. However, most of the time, the song just arrives without me having to do anything about it – which among psychology researchers is referred to as involuntary musical imagery, or INMI.
Not every experience of INMI is identical. Williams [ii] suggests lots of different categories, including earworms. These are songs that are stuck in your mind’s ear, sometimes to the point of irritation, but without any other effect on your daily life. They seem to happen to just about everyone at one point or another [iii].
I’m going to concentrate on earworms as they’re so common, but just for interest, here are a couple of other categories of INMI that Williams mentions:
Musical hallucinations: Thinking you’re hearing music when there isn’t really any music there – unlike earworms, where you’re aware that the music is occurring in your mind’s ear. They might happen because of hearing loss or brain injury.
Musical dreams: While you’re awake when an earworm happens, it’s possible to dream of hearing music. It might be familiar music, new music or a variation on something familiar.
Williams points out that researchers in this field are not necessarily very good at specifying when they’re talking about earworms as opposed to talking about involuntary musical imagery generally, so bear in mind that the research I cover in the blog might not only be about earworms.
Why do earworms happen?
Earworms are particularly likely during tasks which have low cognitive load [iv] – that is, you don’t have to think about them much – like waking up, travelling, housework and physical movement. To some extent these activities are constrained by the time of day, so there are regular times when an earworm might be particularly likely, like your commute.
Odds are at least one of these people has 9 to 5 stuck in their head.
But it’s not just low cognitive load that can lead to earworms – it can also happen if your mind is overloaded [v]. Why do both hard and easy tasks open the door to earworms? Well, if you’re not very engaged in a task it’s easy for your attention to slide, which might happen because you’re bored with it or because you’re overwhelmed by it. There is really only a narrow set of tasks that are the exact right amount of ‘challenging’ for you to become absorbed in doing them! When you’re not doing one of those tasks, the mind can wander and you start thinking about something else, like Harry Potter, or tea and biscuits.
This can’t be the whole story, though, because there are lots of times when our minds wander and we don’t end up with an earworm. Earworms can be triggered by a wide variety of events including recent or repeated exposure to a song, an association of a song with a location or emotion, and being under stress [vi].
So, there are many contributing factors in getting an earworm that come from events happening inside or outside ourselves. But why do we get one song in particular stuck in our heads?
What kinds of songs become earworms?
In what sounds like a gargantuan effort, Jakubowski and colleagues [vii] asked thousands of people to list their most recent and their most frequent earworms, and then sorted through them to find out what characteristics made a song likely to be an earworm. So that they could measure popularity and recency easily, they used only listed songs that had at some point appeared in the UK music charts.
La la la, la la la la-la
What do all these songs have in common? They have a fast tempo, they had been recently released at the time that people were filling out the questionnaire, and they were popular, meaning that you’d have heard them a lot on the radio, in stores, or blasting out of other people’s cars as they sped by.
This fits with another, much smaller study on a group of students in Texas [viii] , which showed that Christmas songs were likely candidates for earworms – presumably because they’d asked for earworms as Christmas was approaching and many stores and radio stations in the area were playing Christmas songs.
So how can I get rid of an earworm?
We can’t spend our lives avoiding fast-tempo, popular songs, or never letting our minds wander, so earworms are pretty much inevitable. Luckily, Williamson and colleagues [ix] did a study on how people cope with earworms when they find them distressing. Here are some tips based on their findings:
Distract yourself by listening to other music, watching TV or chatting with people – anything that gives you something to listen to that’s not the earworm. Some people have a go-to song that can block the earworm but doesn’t become an earworm itself. Mine is Walk Like an Egyptian by The Bangles, and I have no idea why it works.
Listening to the earworm song in its entirety could also help, though there’s some conflicting evidence about this.
You could try combining the above two by listening to the earworm song and then immediately afterwards listening to other music, though it’s not clear if this is more effective than just listening to other music.
Don’t distracting yourself with something purely visual or spatial like a sudoku or a Rubik’s cube, because this won’t provide another noise for you to concentrate on.
Not gonna work
One final means of getting rid of an earworm is my own theory. Please note that this is just a theory, I haven’t tested it and I have no idea if it is something that would work for other people. For me, earworms are sometimes my subconscious telling me about things I need to deal with, and they go away when the problem is resolved. For example, after someone broke up with me I ended up with Reef’s Consideration stuck in my head, a song I hadn’t heard for about 15 years. The specific lyric I kept hearing as I trudged, Charlie Brown-like, through the streets of north London was, “I don’t think that kindness is a weakness.”
I am pretty certain that was my subconscious telling me that the relationship would not have worked anyway because kindness is a thing that I value very highly (yes, I am a Hufflepuff, hello), but it was not very important to the person who’d just broken up with me. After a few days of having this earworm, I attempted to get rid of it by listening to it the whole way through and found that I’d been sending myself another message: the end of it is the repeated lyric, “It’s gonna be all right.” And, funny story, it was. The earworm went away once I started to get over it, and hasn’t come back since.
[iii] Liikkanen, L. A., Jakubowski, K., & Toivanen, J. M. (2015). Catching earworms on Twitter: Using big data to study involuntary musical imagery. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 33(2), 199-216.
[iv] Floridou, G. A., & Müllensiefen, D. (2015). Environmental and mental conditions predicting the experience of involuntary musical imagery: An experience sampling method study. Consciousness and Cognition, 33, 472-486.
[v] Hyman, I. E., Burland, N. K., Duskin, H. M., Cook, M. C., Roy, C. M., McGrath, J. C., & Roundhill, R. F. (2013). Going Gaga: Investigating, creating, and manipulating the song stuck in my head. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27(2), 204-215.
[vi] Williamson, V. J., Jilka, S. R., Fry, J., Finkel, S., Müllensiefen, D., & Stewart, L. (2012). How do “earworms” start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery. Psychology of Music, 40(3), 259-284.
[vii] Jakubowski, K., Finkel, S., Stewart, L., & Müllensiefen, D. (2017). Dissecting an earworm: Melodic features and song popularity predict involuntary musical imagery. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11(2), 122-135.