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 am a guitarist that tours with a couple bands and of course we listen to different music in the van but when we are loading in/setting up gear all I can hear most of the time are the chourses to our own songs or the band that we are touring with, probably because I am subjected to it every day for 3-4 weeks at a time. It's embarrassing when I catch myself singing a song I am about to play/just played, but when we are hanging out if we catch ourselves singing our own songs we usually freestyle and change the lyrics to be gross or obscenely sexual…I think of it as musical banter. Outside of that my latest culprit is “Happy Together” by The Turtles. I also associate images every time, as well…that one is the original N64 advertisement for Super Smash Bros. Now it's stuck in your head? You're welcome!!!

  2. I watched the DVD, “Fiddler on the Roof” two weeks ago and segments of the song, “Tradition” keep popping up in my mind. It's there first thing when I open my eyes in the morning and is present whenever I'm not engaged in watching TV, speaking with someone or typing on the computer. But the second I stop these activities, there's the song. It's becoming very annoying and upsetting. What can I do to rid my mind of these musical snatches that inadvertently present themselves and cause me some anxiety?

  3. I don't think it's crazy at all. You've found a way to cope with the quiet atmosphere at your office in a way that's non-invasive to others and is welcoming to you. I hope this lasts. Sometimes we just have to find the positive in every situation and make it work well for us!

  4. I know. The only times that I'm away from the earworms is when I'm watching television or talking with someone or on the computer working on something in depth. It's almost like a game, trying to get away from the annoying musical segment playing and replaying in my mind. Is it only some of us that experience this?

  5. I completely relate to what you are experiencing. The only times I'm able to get away from the annoyingly constant fragment of a piece of music playing and replaying in my mind is when I'm watching TV, engaged in good conversation, or on the computer working. God help us!

  6. Noooooo not that one… I've had that one before… not again! lol Well sheesh! It might be better than the Daft Punk song I've got there. I'm up all night to Get Lucky! Aaaaaaaahaaahhhaaahh!!!

  7. My entire life it seems Ive had “til there was u” irritatingly stuck in my head in those low attention moments. Ugh. Finally googled it- first released THE YEAR I WAS BORN! is that weird or what?

  8. I have been trying to find anything at all online relative to a similar phenomenon that has been occurring to me occasionally for at least 15 years and that is with dreams…it's some usually totally meaningless dream FRAGMENT that keeps repeating like a tape loop within a single dream on one night only…. it's mostly visual like dreams are, instead of auditory…although words could accompany it like shaking hands with someone while saying Hi how are you 100 times and not being able to wake up from it…it's always the last dream before I wake up and I usually have overslept and I feel cranky and out of sorts all day long afterwards. These are not what one would call nightmares either…the specific content could have an emotional charge to it or it could be totally meaningless and banal…something that should rightfully be a segue to the next event within the dream…only the next event never gets to happen. I've never heard of one other person describing this sort of thing. Earworms is as close I have come to finding anything similar to it.

  9. “Stars Fell On Alabama” has been stuck in my head all night and still this morning. Why this particular song? I have no idea. It has no special significance for me. I'm really not even fond of it.

  10. Hello all,I m student.i hv got some information about earworm which is related with song which get stuck in ur mind.this is what i m suffering now.Could you plz help me out from this problem and plz suggest me what should i do.

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