If earworms – songs that play in your head – drive you crazy, you’ll welcome clues for how to eradicate them that come from a new study by psychologists at Western Washington University, USA.
First – and I realise this doesn’t sound appealing – try to avoid songs that you like. The new research suggests they are most likely to become lodged in your head (contrary to the myth that it’s obnoxious songs with most earworm potential). If you must listen to a favoured song, check to see if it starts playing in your head right afterwards. If it does, then it’s well on its way to becoming an earworm. This is a particular risk if you find that only a part of the song plays in your head.
Ira Hyman Jr. and his colleagues believe this last detail may be a manifestation of the classic Zeigarnik Effect, whereby incomplete tasks remain in memory but evaporate once completed. In the case of earworms, the researchers propose that the playing of only a part of a song in your head leaves it incomplete and thereby increases the likelihood that it will return against your will as an earworm. This insight suggests that one way to squash a developing earworm is to make sure, once a song starts playing in your head, that you see it all the way through (perhaps you will need to listen to the track again to ensure this is possible).
Finally, after listening to music, try to avoid mental tasks that are either too easy or too difficult. Any kind of activity that increases your mind-wandering will also provide fertile ground for an earworm to develop. In the same vein, engaging in an absorbing task will tie up your mental resources and deny the earworm the chance to grow.
These insights are based on a survey and several lab experiments conducted by Hyman Jr. and his team. The survey of 299 students revealed that enjoyable, recently heard songs were more likely to become earworms; that a huge variety of songs become earworms; that musicians experience them more often and re-experience more aspects of songs.
In the experiments, dozens of students listened to and rated three songs by the Beatles and by more contemporary acts like Gaga (ostensibly as part of a completely different research study), then they completed a puzzle task. Afterwards they revealed whether any of the songs had started playing in their heads, and 24 hours later they reported whether the songs had returned as earworms.
Overly challenging sudoku or anagram tasks helped breed more earworms (the former more so than the latter). Beatles songs were just as likely to become earworms as modern hits. Songs played later in the experimental session (therefore more recently heard) were more likely to become earworms; and a song that started playing in the head soon after listening was more likely to become an earworm over the next 24 hours. Only playing part of songs to students, as opposed to the whole track, did not increase the risk of earworms.
“Songs frequently come to mind as intrusive thoughts, and intrusive song cycles are easy to start in both naturalistic and laboratory situations,” the researchers said. “In our experimental studies, we have documented that intrusive song cycles are easy to start and manipulate. Therefore, songs may provide a valuable tool for examining why intrusive thoughts occur and how to control intrusive thought cycles.”
Hyman, I., Burland, N., Duskin, H., Cook, M., Roy, C., McGrath, J., and Roundhill, R. (2012). Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2897