What triggers an Earworm – the song that’s stuck in your head?

PYT was triggered by the letters EYC 

The brain has its own jukebox. A personal sound system for your private listening pleasure. The downside is that it has a mind of its own. It often chooses the songs and it frequently gets stuck, playing a particular tune over and over until you’re sick of it. Psychologists have nicknamed these mental tunes “earworms” (from the German Ohrwurm). A study from 2009 found that they can last anywhere between minutes to hours, but that they’re only unpleasant in a minority of cases. Now a team led by Victoria Williamson, in partnership with BBC 6 Music and other international radio stations, has surveyed thousands of people to try to find out the various triggers that cause earworms to start playing. Radio listeners and web visitors were invited to fill in an online form or email the station about their latest earworm experience and the circumstances that preceded it.

Just over 600 participants provided all the information that was needed for a detailed analysis. Predictably, the most frequently cited circumstance was recent exposure to a particular song. “My bloody earworm is that bloody George Harrison song you played yesterday,” one 6 Music listener wrote in. “Woke at 4.30 this morning with it going round me head. PLEASE DON’T EVER PLAY IT AGAIN.” In relation to this kind of earworm-inducing exposure, the survey revealed the manifold ways that we come into contact with music in modern life, including: music in public places, in gyms, restaurants and shops; radio music; live music; ring tones; another person’s humming or singing; and music played in visual media on TV and on the Internet.

However, a song doesn’t have to be heard to worm its way inside your head. Many listeners described how earworms had been triggered by association – contact with certain people, rhythms, situations, sounds or words – sometimes with quite obscure links. “On my journey, I read a number plate on a car that ended in the letters ‘EYC’ which is NOTHING LIKE ‘PYT’ (by Michael Jackson),” said another listener, “but for some unknown reason, there it was – the song was in my head.”

Memories also triggered earworms – for example, driving along the same stretch of road that a song was first heard. And also anticipation. Another listener had “Alive” by Pearl Jam stuck in their head in the days before attending a Pearl Jam concert.

Mood and stress were other triggers. “Prokofiev ‘Montagues and Capulets’ opening theme. I was writing an email about a distressing subject. I suspect the mood of the piece matched my mood at the time,” said an amateur musician. Another listener had Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror playing in her mind ever since she’d been thinking about the star non-stop and feeling sad (the survey coincided with his death in 2009).

A final theme to emerge from the survey was the way that earworms start playing when we’re in a “low attention state”, bored or even asleep. “My earworm is ‘Mulder and Scully’ by Catatonia. In fact I dreamt about running through woods and this was the sound track in my head,” said a 6 Music listener. Another survey respondent experienced K’naan “Waving Flag” when mind wandering through a monotonous lab task.

Theoretically, Williamson and her colleagues said earworms can be understood as another manifestation of what Ebbinghaus in the nineteenth century identified as “involuntary memory retrieval”. They could even provide a new window through which to study that phenomenon.

“While musical imagery is a skill that many (especially musicians) can utilise to their advantage, involuntary musical imagery (INMI) is an involuntary, spontaneous, cognitive intrusion that, while not necessarily unpleasant or worrying, can prove hard to control,” the researchers concluded. “The present study has classified the breadth of circumstances associated with the onset of an INMI episode in everyday life and provided insights into the origins of the pervasive phenomenon, as well as an illustration of how these different contexts might interact.”

What about you? What earworms have you experienced lately and what was the context? Please use comments to share your earworm experiences.

ResearchBlogging.orgWilliamson, V., Jilka, S., Fry, J., Finkel, S., Mullensiefen, D., and Stewart, L. (2011). How do “earworms” start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735611418553

Link to Earwormery, the website used by the authors of this study to survey participants’ experiences.
Link to previous Digest item on earworms, “A natural history of the Earworm – the song that won’t get out of your head.”
Link to previous Digest item: “Hearing music that isn’t there.”

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

62 thoughts on “What triggers an Earworm – the song that’s stuck in your head?”

  1. I get Ella Fitzgerald's version of Stormy Weather in my head at least once a day and have done for about 5 years! At one time when I was in hospital and there was no music, that particular song went round and round in my head for three weeks, constantly. Very strange.

  2. I've often gone to bed with a certain song in my head and woken up with it still going. It doesn't bother me, luckily, but it does give me pause to think I could have been mentally repeating a short fragment from a song (it is pretty much always a fragment, not the whole song) all night!

    Also, looking after a young child I can tell you that nursery rhymes are extremely earworm-y. Not sure whether inherently or because I'm singing them to my daughter several times a day, but regardless they sure are catchy.

  3. Psychologists have nicknamed these mental tunes “earworms”.

    As German colleagues of mine (I seem to have had a few!) would note, the term “earworm” is a German borrowing, not a psychological coining. The original term is “Ohrwurm” – I heard this some years ago and was intrigued, glad that someone's started to take a systematic interest.


    May I advance a corollary to the axiomatic existence of earworms? I have often tried to get rid of one earworm (once it has become sufficiently irritating) by bringing conscious attention to another tune. This is only sometimes effective, and I submit that there is a spectrum of 'catchiness' such that a tune can only replace an earworm if it is more catchy. I'd like to suggest an ordinal scale onto which tunes could be mapped according to catchiness, and further suggest that this be called the Bacharach Scale in honour of that writer of catchy melodies.

  4. While digging over the garden recently, I had Ladytron's “Destroy everything you touch” stuck in my head for several days. It did feel like particularly destructive work!

  5. I get earworms an awful lot, and it can become quite irritating. This is mostly because it tends not to be whole pieces of music but fragments repeated. Mahler gives me more earworms than any other composer, and Wagner's pretty bad too – individual leitmotivs get stuck on repeat in my head.

    One effect that I don't think has been mentioned here (but I think is quite common) is for two or more music fragments to be stuck together, e.g. a line or two of one song then merging seamlessly into a different song.

    Also, does anyone else sometimes get two earworms running concurrently? Last weekend, for example, I had I've Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts (why???) superimposed perfectly over the Colonel Bogey march.

  6. As a singer I get particularly annoyed with earworms of songs where I can't quite remember all the lyrics so it's like a stuck record going round and round to the same bit. I also go annually to a folk festival and after a whole day and night of singing I go to bed with a waterfall of songs in my head which can keep me awake for hours. Not sure whether that is pleasure or pain!

  7. For me at least, earworms also come from language and environmental sounds. I repeatedly found myself thinking/singing Soundgarden's Black Hole Sun while gardening in my Tucson AZ yard. I finally realized that the Eurasian Collared-Doves coo their monotonous “song” with the same basic cadence as the refrain of that song! I also get names or phrases stuck in my head, just like a musical earworm, but without the music.

  8. I spent several decades playing music Far Too Loudly through my headphones, so I've got a lot imprinted into me.

    Happily, many of my earworms are better than the originals! For instance, the version of Simon and Garfunkle's Sounds of Silence that sometimes flows has only bass, voice and drums.

    And I convert things to other styles and tempos.

    The old blues song Dyin Crapshooter Blues? Recently, I had it in 3/4 time. (“Now don't y'all stand around,” old Jesse cried. / He wanted everyone to WALTZ (two, three) whilst he died!) I was humming that and giggling all day at work.

    My buddy Norel Pref took similar comments of mine about Darth Vader's theme music and came up with something called “Yakety Syth,” which can be found online.

  9. (That should have been “Yakety Sith.”)

    @silverfin: As a kid, we sang the Col. Bogie to the lyrics, “Comet, it makes your teeth turn green …”

    But any coconut that does that doesn't sound lovely at all.

    And y'know what goes with almost anything? Nevin's Narcissus

    Finally (I hope,) one pair of songs I love to combine mentally is My Favorite Things with 21st Century Schizoid Man.

    At paranoia's poison door
    These are a few of my favorite things.

  10. The earworms involving Billy Joel and/or The Eagles are the worst. All it takes is a snippet of some dreck like “Uptown Girl” in the supermarket and it's mentally replaying for days.

    Most of the time, though, these are great. I love being able to call up music any time I want. I always think of The Kinks' “Stormy Sky” when it rains.

    “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People
    Been going for a week now with no signs of leaving my head…

  12. I often get earworms when my neighbor starts singing this song that I really hate and it just keeps on playing inside my head over and over for the whole day. It sucks because this neighbor or mine sings it everyday since 2 weeks ago!

  13. 'Earworms' are almost a daily phenomenon for me. But what sets mine apart is that it will be jus be a specific line from a song that will run in my head so of course i will one line sing aloud everyday. suffice it to say,it drives my friends crazy.they have come to accept it as one of my quirks.

  14. Come on, people. Why fight it? If it's an earworm, it's because it's irresistible for some reason. It could be Abba, or Strauss (personal fave earworm when walking in the street), Cliff Richard or U2. The earworm spans genres and is most likely a combination of unforgettable melody + mood detached from the snob reaction of “Me, whistle Abba? Never on your life!”. Your subconscious knows better apparently. Listen to your inner ear and you'll enjoy music at a simpler plane.

  15. Earlier this year I spent a few months travelling in India, and very early on my ipod broke, so I spent about 3 months not being able to choose the music I heard. I thought it'd be an interesting experience.

    One nice outcome was that songs I'd liked as a teenager kept popping into my head (I don't know what might have triggered them), but there was a dark side…

    For about a week, whenever I was walking at a steady pace (and even when sitting standing still) the Honky Tonk from David Lynch's Blue Velvet would start up, and it drove me nuts!

    Later on a sleepless overnight bus journey I spent about 6 or 7 miserable hours being bombarded by parts of Van Morrison's 'Brown Eyed Girl' Just thinking about it now makes me cringe.

    I agree with Silverfin about fragments being much more irritating. One that has kept returning for the last 2 or 3 years is:
    'I'm not the kinda girl
    I'm not the kinda girl
    I'm not the kinda girl
    who'd give up just like that
    like that
    like that
    like that, oh
    I'm not the kinda girl…'

    ad nauseam

  16. That's “The Tide is High”!! The original's by The Paragons but Blondie's version was a HUGE hit.

    Classic earworm material.

  17. The only time earworms both me is when I am reading in bed. Sometimes I find I can't concentrate on the book. And I feel it's almost a stress response as if reading is too exciting and pleasurable.

  18. I get earworms when trying to learn new tunes for the concertina or pipes. My current one is the catchy march 'Horsburgh Castle' by Ian Hardie. The earworms fade when the tune is thoroughly learned.


  19. I always wake up with a different song in my head, like a screensaver I revert to it when there's nothing to do. I blamed my clock-radio for many months until I switched it to a beep setting and it still happened.

    The most common is S club 7, don't stop moving! For some reason! The best is when I don't know the words but my brain just plays what I heard. Likethis morning, it's Star Girl by McFly:
    “Hey, looking out for a star girl, I'm fflanna blaaah to the caaaar girl…”

    The best way is to sing a non-sticky song, like Karma Chameleon or Hey Jude. It's there for a bit to drown the other song out, but then fades away,

  20. 'Crush On You' by the Jets has been stuck in my head for days on end. As I don't know all the lyrics, it's just a couple of lines from the chorus going round, and round, and round, and round.

    “How did you know? 'Cause I never told. You found out: I've got a crush on you!”

    But I don't really mind it, because I like the song. I just sing it out loud and for some strange reason, I enjoy it more.

  21. I guess this makes me really weird, but for as long as I can remember, I have ALWAYS had a song stuck in my head.

    Every waking moment of every day, there is a song playing in my head. The song can change every couple of minutes, stick for hours, or keep switching out with others. At times, I even have several combined in my head like an awesome mashup.

    I can choose what song I want to hear and play it in my head, thoroughly, as if I'm listening to it.

    Even in my sleep, I often note while dreaming the songs in my head.

    I'm often singing along or tapping to the song.

    It's not annoying, just awesome. For a long time, I thought the same was true for everyone, but recently I've found it's not. I can't imagine not hearing a song in the back of your mind, constantly playing. How does that even happen?

    And yeah, sometimes random things can trigger songs–even things people say. Hell, sometimes someone says a phrase and I'll instantly begin to sing the lyrics to a song with that phrase. It happens all the time because I know so many.

    Is there ANYONE else like this?

  22. At least we now have a word for it! Recently it's been Lady Gaga whose compositions have a frequency and contruction almost designed for permanent implanting in your “inner ear”. Is it any music, or only certain sequences of words/music/chords/frequencies? Is it related to some historic or present emotional disturbance of the listener or do certain pieces of music contain a “hook” which latches onto the listener's emotions at the time .Does this happen in cultures not exposed to the 24/7 intrusion of piped music such as tribal Africa et al? This certainly requires more investigation!

  23. Great survey!

    I wake up in the morning and still hear the song that was in my dream, but I do not know this song. Does this mean that I ever heard it before? or this song composed by my brain

  24. Earworms have become particularly distressing for me of late. Always fragments or lines of a song looping 24 hours a day for several days, then the song switches and the same scenario repeats. I've been able to switch songs on occassion by thinking of another, but one would not leave and I took to repeatedly saying “No!” outloud for several minutes, each time the song tried to return, to break the cycle. I cannot see what the triggers are for this. The songs don't enter my dreams, but rather run in the background as if a TV was on in the room. (I've also begun to notice what seem like conversations going on “in the background”, again, like a TV is on. There are times I think I will go nuts!

  25. When I was a kid, my sister LOVED that exhibit at DC's Air and Space Museum that had that song “The Family of the Sun,” to the point where Mom had to actually visit it repeatedly to write down all the lyrics for her. I, on the other hand, would spend the entire Metro ride home trying to knock it out of my skull.

    Nowadays, my earworms tend to be everything from a classic Rat Pack song to that damned Free Credit Report bike commercial with that jingle in it-that one took THREE MONTHS to knock loose! To make matters worse, now my older daughter likes to fall asleep with her clock radio in “sleep” mode set to a station that plays modern techno/pop music. It's absolutely MADDENING when some of those songs get stuck in my head! Even as I type this, I've got that LMFAO song “Party Rock Anthem” playing in my head, and those Kia commercials did NOT help one bit!


  26. i awoke one morning to the sound of a loud, raucous, male voice using brain-washing phrases and part of songs which I could not understand. This has been going on for two and a half years night and day, especially at 2 hourly intervals during the night when the music goes quiet so that you sleep and then wakes you up with loud music. To say that I am sleep deprived is putting it mildly. There is no way I can overcome it. Last year I slept one day for 17 hours non-stop I was so tired. It was suggested I sing a song which temporarily would stop the shouting; I did this and when the music started in my head a few seconds later the song was being sung by the horrible male voice, not my voice. It is as if the voice has an intelligence of its own as it knows which hours to use for sleep deprivation etc. If anyone has any suggestions to get rid of this voice I would be very grateful. I have been put on medication which does cut out the noise but I end up feeling dopey next day. I have given up the medication now and am able to sleep thru. part of the night and take a sleeping pill for the remainder. I ask myself, “Why me” but I dont have the answer.

  27. Hi TinDefacto,

    Yes, this is exactly what I experience. I recently changed roles to where I sit at my desk for long periods. I thought I would go crazy our office is so quiet, I can't play music, and don't want to wear headphones. But it's been fine because I just listen to the songs in my head all day while I work. I love it! I love to listen to music at other times so I have a good selection ready to replay in my mind. One word is all it takes to shift tunes – its often very funny!

    I always try to take note of the first song in my head when I wake in the morning. I feel like it's a message from my subconscious, often a solution to a problem I have.

    The music and voice is very clear. Often I don't know the name of the song in my head, but I can recognize the voice of the singer, then I can find it in my music collection or on iTunes. Crazy, hey?

  28. I've had earworms my entire life, as long as I can remember. There is always music playing in my head. Fortunately I'm able to ignore it most of the time. It gets annoying mainly when I'm not occupied with other matters.

    The only way I can get rid of an earworm tune is to replace it with a different tune.

  29. It drives me mad day in day out. When I am trying to get to sleep, as soon as I wake & as soon as I don't have anything to concentrate on. No particular song, just what I like at the time or one I have heard. It's so annoying when I can't get to sleep. I love music but would really really like a rest from it

  30. These two lines from the song colour my rainbow” have been playing in my head this morning.
    “Colour my rainbow in blue
    Take me to much better places”.

    I didn't even realize that it is being played in my head at first. Then I paid attention and even checked the lyrics. After a while is stopped.
    I read somewhere that those are messages from the subconscious mind.

  31. Demented!!

    I have recently been plagued by one line of any song I have the misfortune to hear or remember. Today it has been 'call me maybe' I am actually starting to feel quite insane. My head aches with the constant mumbling in my ears.

  32. Hi all,

    Glad to know that there is so much happening about earworms and I am not alone. Thanks Mr. Jarrett! I get many film songs in my language (Telugu, India). I dont like them all. Melody or lyrical twists seem to be the criterion for looping. A particular word we see, hear hear or ralte to can trigger. I am very stressed of late n having 'fizzy sleep' and 'very detailed' dreams! in a half-woken sleep.

    All the success I got with getting rid of earworms is to replace one with another. Its bad.

    Hope, my info helps a bit.


  33. The discription I fit best is TinDefacto's. I hear music all the time. I shock myself with some of the songs that come up wondering how I even know them. At this very minute I have had “These Boots are Made for Walking”, “I ride my bicycle,don't roller skate, don't drive no car, don't go to fast but I go pretty far…”(don't even know the name to that one), to “In the Getto” by Elvis. I can usually change the song, but the one-lined songs always seem to come back once I think I have gotten rid of it. It drives me nuts sometimes. Especially when I try to study for a test, they seem to overpower my thoughts and make it very dificult to try and retain what I am trying to learn. It's like I hear music at the same time as I'm trying to think, almost as if it's seperate, or like two brains in one head acting independently with some coperation at times. For example when I'm typing this the music is also playing. Hope that makes sense.

    There is a very wide assortment of songs also,anywhere from country to the blues, hard rock, contemporary, childrens songs, soul, to big band music. Music I don't even like for instance,”The Carpenters”,”We've Only Just Begun” or Glen Cambell,yuck! Music before I was even born plays in my head. Very strange… I think if I was unable to change that tune I would be on some serious drugs!

    I know melodies also. I can hear just a few cords of a song and know which one it is or if it starts out the same as another because many of them do. I just wish there was a job out there that fit my brain. We could be making a fortune! If anyone knows of anything let me know, there has to be a way to put it to good use.

    Also, when I hear a song for the first time on the radio or anywhere I can tell if it's going to be a number one hit, the first time I hear it. I'm about 99% correct every time.

    I am sure glad to know that I'm not alone in this matter. It has been bothering me quite a bit because no one I know feels this way. It has gotten to the point that I had to type the question on the internet. I was surprised at the results I got however, it does not seem to be really common from what I have been able to find and saddened to see no solution to stop it. Feels better to talk about it tho, I guess.

    Thank you for listening.

  34. I get earworms only from Billy Joel songs. I'm in Lowe's or Kroger and then… oh, no! ANY Billy Joel song. 2 days later the awful endless worm begins its bore for days. Sometimes it is unbearable. I notice that others here have the same problem.

  35. I have the same problem
    The only way to get rid is
    1.imagine a ear worm going out of your head
    2 think you should not hear any song
    3 concentrate on external sound
    .for more details or for any help please mail me at rrvdoc@gmail.com


  37. I actually love music but I hate what it does to me.

    I've had earworms for as long as I can remember. I grew up on a remote cattle station in outback Australia. Music wasn't played much at home thank goodness. I remember when I was about 12 I finally figured out that if I didn't hear any music or watch any TV for a week my head would finally be silent. As I wouldn't have electricity on the camps on the station there were many times each year I would have no TV/music for weeks and I was happiest out there. As soon as we'd get back to the homestead and the music/TV was going again I hated it. It makes me feel tired, anxious, unable to concentrate.

    Now that I'm older I seem to be able to ward it off better when I'm busy when I first hear the song. When I've been relaxed and calm or tired I get hit the worst. I can have 2 songs playing particular lines simultaneously and it makes me anxious, my muscles tense, it's hard to concentrate and work and makes me very tired. I don't think these are sent from my subconscious as they don't have any significance…how can “I'm gonna rip some tags, this is f@*!ing awesome” while at the same time some high pitch riff from Skrillex going off has some spiritual meaning?

    Even if I busy myself after this or play a different tune or try and relax it's too late. It often keeps playing when I try to go to sleep that night, I'll wake many times during the night with that/those songs still going, I'll dream of those songs sometimes so then I start the next day tired. Then it gets worse the next day because I was tired and it starts a bad cycle of insomnia which can last for days or months. While I'm certain the the songs themselves aren't the root of the problem, probably a symptom, it's not helping me a bit. I'm anxious when the songs are playing – so it's like the “chicken and the egg” problem, which comes first. For me it's not a small inconvenience.

  38. It's ruining my life, I cannot sleep… I am convinced that there is something about the “new” songs on the radio that is purposeful constructed to stick in your head. I head the most annoying songs over and over every single night before I go to bed. I cannot sleep it wakes me up and its still going when I wake up in the morning, even when I take sleeping pills this still happens to me

  39. These earworms are driving my crazy. Their in my head when I wake up at 3:00am to use the bathroom. It's every song that I like will say in my head for month until I hear another one I like. I hate it.

  40. i have been bothered by earworms for only the last couple of years. [I'm 59] But this time i absolutely can't get this song out of my head ['Stay' by Rihanna] It goes through my head constantly, all night long and even when I'm working. I'm always saying “stop” to myself. Anyway this time being so bad made me try to find out what it was and why it happens. So now I know what it is. I kind of think it's from stress since I've been under a lot of stress lately. I love music and I've had to stop listening to any music for awhile to 'recover' from a certain song that won't go away. so grateful for computers and the connection to others with this problem. I probably would have spent a fortune going to a psychiatrist to find out what the problem was. Thanks everyone! I'm really a Beatles fan. LOL

  41. They come and go for me. I am trying to understand the connection between the ear worm and my stress level. It seems like the song is a soothing form of stress relief on a subconscious level. Coping with something my conscious self is not yet aware of.

  42. Recently, I've had the song “Year Zero” by Ghost as my earworm. It constantly plays throughout the day, as I lay to go to sleep and when I wake up numerous times throughout the night. It is playing, always, even now… Don't get me wrong, it's a great song, I just can't focus or concentrate on anything else

  43. A boom boom diddum doddum waddum shoe and repeat, a boom boom diddum doddum waddum shoe – started about 18 hours ago. Its exhausting me not being able to stop it.

    (from the 3 little fishes song my mother sang to me years ago)

  44. Literally a ton of dubstep is playing, constantly. Excision, downlink, zomboy, chrispy, k dean, rabbit killer, dubba johnny. Its all in there.

  45. I've had Underworld's “Rez” stuck in my head on and off, for over a month. That said, I enjoy it the song so much, I don't mind the mental intrusion.

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