Earworms are those songs that get lodged in your cranium, playing over and over and over. There’s been surprisingly little published research on the phenomenon, although several popular science writers like Oliver Sacks have speculated about it. There’s also an ‘expert’ in the form of Professor James Kellaris at the University of Cincinnati, but his investigations all appear to be unpublished. That hasn’t stopped Kellaris’ university from hosting a website devoted to earworms. And there’s also an online earworm exhibition at San Francisco’s Exploratorium.
Now two British psychologists, Philip Beaman and Tim Williams, have decided it’s time to fill the empirical void and serve up some actual data on earworms. They surveyed just over one hundred railway travellers, students and visitors to a public garden about their earworm experiences, and they also asked 12 other participants to keep diary records for four weeks about their earworms.
Beaman and Williams found, contrary to the speculation, that earworms don’t seem to be more common in people with musical expertise, although a study that actually targets musicians is needed to verify this. Instead, they found that it is people who judge music to be of more importance who are more likely to get a song stuck in their head.
Previous commentators have also tended to highlight the unpleasantness of earworms and compared them to the intrusive thoughts associated with obsessive compulsive disorder. However, the new research found that only a minority of earworms (33 per cent in the diary study) were described by participants in this way. Very few earworms recurred in the same day and most were usually gone by the next day. However, earworms did seem similar to intrusive thoughts in relation to attempts to banish them. Participants reported that most strategies, such as trying to think of another song, actually made the original earworm worse.
The researchers also looked at the typical length of earworm episodes. Approximately 27 minutes was the verdict from the diary study, and several hours was the survey result. Finally, what about the idea that some specific songs are more prone to becoming earworms than others? The researchers found little evidence for this. Different participants named and shamed different earworm songs and each individual participant tended to report a range of different songs, rather than pointing to repeat offending by the same recalcitrant tune. Instead, earworm potential appeared to be determined by amount of exposure to a tune combined with that tune’s relative simplicity and repetitiveness.
Beaman CP, & Williams TI (2009). Earworms (‘stuck song syndrome’): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts. British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953) PMID: 19948084