Earworm Songs – What They Are and How to Get Rid of Them

Have you ever experienced a somewhat unpleasant feeling of having a song stuck in your brain? Even when you like that particular song, it can quickly grow annoying to have its refrain resonating in your head over and over again. These are called ‘Earworms’.

If it is, don’t worry: this phenomenon is very common. So common, that psychologists conducted many studies on how its origins, what effects it has on our brains, and how to stop it.

Examples of Popular Earworm Songs

aqua-barbie-girl-earwormExperts refer to this phenomenon as Involuntary Musical Imagery (IMI), but in our everyday language, we label it with the rather exhaustive term “earworm”.

As highlighted in a study conducted by the American Psychological Association, some popular songs are designed to become earworms. A few examples include:

  • Lady Gaga – Bad Romance
  • Aqua – Barbie Girl
  • Europe – The Final Countdown
  • Maroon 5 – Moves Like Jagger
  • Kylie Minogue – Can’t Get You Out Of My Head
  • Deep Purple – Smoke On The Water
  • Spice Girls – Wannabe
  • Wham! – Wake Me Up Before You Go Go
  • Gwen Stefani – Hollaback Girl
  • George Harrison – I’ve Got My Mind Set On You

The list could be much longer and, as you can see, earworms are not specific to a certain time or a certain genre. They are rather ubiquitous.

Some of the titles highlighted in the previous paragraph might look quite ironic, such as Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, or I’ve Got My Mind Set On You, but they are quite indicative of how writing earworm songs can be considered an art, or at least a business. Whether the songwriters expected their songs to become earworms or not, they surely proved some outstanding abilities in creating catchy hooks and sticking phrases, at least in these two popular cases.

In fact, the phenomenon usually involves only small sections of a song, typically the refrain or a short instrumental hook rather than the whole track.

How to Write Earworm Songs

Some of the elements that the American Psychological Association identified as potentially necessary to build an earworm song include an upbeat tempo and a predictable melodic frame suddenly broken by an unpredictable rhythmical, lyrical, or melodic shift.

For example, the fortunate hit by Lady Gaga Bad Romance presents an unsettling hook right before the verse, that doesn’t make much sense linguistically, but that will surely stick in your head.

The rest of the song is somewhat predictable in terms of melody, harmony, and theme outlined in the lyrics, but that little hook is the genius touch that makes the song literally unforgettable.

The Impact of Earworms on Our Brains

Most people refer to the earworm phenomenon as a pleasant experience, while some others can get so plagued by a certain hook or refrain they start feeling nervous or obsessed.

Earworms can manifest at any time and anywhere, triggered by the most various visual or auditory stimuli. A slogan, a picture, or even a situation you are living can unconsciously remind you of that catchy song you haven’t heard in ages, and that your brain still knows perfectly.

It is very common, for example, to automatically recall the summer hit that accompanied one of your childhood vacations when you visit the place you stayed at. An even more common trigger is represented by posters and ads.

With more and more songs being published every day, in an unforgiving competition to grab the listener’s attention, the phenomenon of earworms has surely increased and it was clearly used as a sort of marketing tool.

After all, it is not rocket science: the catchier the tune, the more likely it will sell. This is why, throughout the years, professional songwriters have experimented with different techniques to make their songs stick (again, literally).

The phenomenon is so ubiquitous, it grabbed the attention of many experts. On top of the study already quoted, another research published in Psychology of Music found that almost 90% of the people interviewed experience earworms at least once a week.

The sensation of having the song stuck in your brain can last for up to 30 minutes, although there are cases that go way beyond this threshold.

Women seem to be more inclined to the phenomenon, while musicians, or people stating they particularly care about music, find it to be more uncontrollable or of a longer duration.

How to Stop Earworms

Having reported a small, yet consistent, percentage of people (about 15%) describing this phenomenon as unpleasant, psychologists came up with a few pieces of advice to contrast it. Some of them are rather straightforward. For example, listening to another song will surely stop the earworm, at least for a given period of time.

Some other activities, however, can be even more effective. You could read a book or do a sudoku puzzle, for example. These actions require you to focus on a specific, moderately difficult task involving your working memory.

Basically, by engaging in a new, more difficult task, your brain temporarily forgets about the refrain stuck there.

According to a study conducted by the University of Reading, chewing gums can also be precious allies to beat the earworm. The simple act of chewing can indeed block the automatic generation of the involuntary musical imagery.

While some great songs became earworms because of their popularity or their brilliance, quite a lot of the commercial music we now listen to is specifically designed to stick with you.

Luckily, most of us don’t feel harmed by this unconscious manipulation, but it is more and more desirable for the music industry to stop relying on these techniques to sell.

In the meantime, let’s defend our ears and minds with a good book or some crossword time!

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