I often find myself with a song stuck playing in my head. And it is usually the last thing I listened to in the morning on my daily train trip. But sometimes it’s a completely random song, prompted by other things in my environment. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and for some reason, we started to talk about “The Lion King”, which promptly led me to having some of the songs from it stuck in my head. In fact, right now as I am writing this, the song that was playing in my head has just been replaced by “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” (I do apologize right now if I have unintentionally put this song in your head).
“I Just Can’t Wait to be King”. Image taken be me.
So… WHY IS THIS? How can I just get songs or tunes stuck playing in a looping fashion in my head, even when I’m not listening to it directly and when I’m trying to concentrate on something entirely different? Surely scientific research can offer an explanation and resolution for this.
The common term for this piece of music that sticks in your head is an “earworm”. There have been several psychological studies on this phenomenon, also described as “musical imagery repetition”, “involuntary musical imagery”, or to be more direct, “stuck song syndrome”. One study published this year looked at how earworms start. In summary, what the researchers found was that there were 4 main reasons for experiencing an earworm – recent or repeated exposure to music, memory triggers (environmental cues), affective states (moods and emotions), and low attention states (dreams and mind wandering).
Okay, so we know some factors for instigating an earworm. But what part of the brain is activated when a song is stuck in your head?
Research conducted at Dartmouth College in the US suggests that the auditory association cortex (around the superior temporal gyrus) is activated when listening to familiar tunes with gaps of silence. This was in contrast to listening to unfamiliar tunes, whereby, when the gap in the music occurred, there was less activation of the auditory association cortex. In simpler terms – for those not psychologically or anatomically inclined – what they found was that, while inducing a gap in familiar music, participants “heard” a continuation of the song in their heads during the gap, whilst this wasn’t so when unfamiliar songs were played with gaps. In addition to this research, a study by Beaman and Williams also found that earworms involved re-activating representations in our long term memory.
As for getting rid of an earworm? Beaman and Williams proposed that trying to actively block an earworm is less effective than just passively waiting for it to go away. This observation was following Wegner’s Theory of ironic mental control, where in essence, any attempt to get rid of an earworm backfires as it only re-instates itself to the individual’s conscious awareness! Though, in spite of this research, others suggest that mentally reaching the end of the song may help. But alas, in my case, this may be ultimately ineffective if the song is replaced by some other song. Or if the only words of a song I know are part of one crazy, looping, infectious chorus!
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.
Kraemer, D., Macrae, C., Green, A., & Kelley, W. (2005). Musical imagery: sound of silence activates auditory cortex.Nature, 434(7030), 158.
Beaman, C. P., & Williams, T. I. (2010). Earworms (‘song stuck syndrome’): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts.British Journal of Psychology, 101(4), 637-653.