That recurring loop from “Can’t get you outta my head”, “Pokerface” or “The Chicken Song” that keeps repeating in your mind is called an earworm. But why do we get them, and more importantly how do we get rid of them?
Over 90% of us report that we get an earworm at least once a week, sometimes after hearing the tune, but often spontaneously generated and heard in our minds. Some research suggests that people with OCD and, unsurprisingly, musicians are more likely to get them. They tend to irritate women more, but then they do have them for longer than men as well. The tunes involved overwhelmingly involve lyrics, and the music tends to have a string repeating rhythm that allows the same snippet to be repeated over and over again.
One suggested reason that an earworm usually involves only a small portion of a song is that it is trapped in the auditory short term memory, which typically has a maximum capacity of 30 seconds. The fact that it involves the short term memory is the basis for one of the five suggested methods to rid yourself of an earworm.
Method 1 – engage your working memory. In practice this means
- mental arithmetic, specifically long division
- solving Sudoku puzzles
- solving tricky anagrams
- read a novel
All of these can be effective ways of stopping an earworm as they move memory processing and attention onto another activity. The activities do have to be at the right level though – if the long-division, Sudoku, or anagram is too easy or too difficult then it won’t engage your working memory well enough for this technique to work.
Method 2 – this is a twist on the use of memory in solving maths problems and puzzles, but instead adopts a “fight fire with fire” approach to the earworm. The idea here is to start singing a second tune to drive out the first. The favoured ones for this technique are “Happy Birthday” and “God Save the Queen”, because whilst strong enough to erase the first tune they aren’t rhythmic or melodic enough to start a second earworm of their own.
Method 3 – conclude the song. This is based on the idea of the earworm being an unfinished thought, and unfinished thoughts being difficult to dismiss. It’s also linked to the idea that the earworm is caused by strongly rhythmic music that is “played” on a loop. To resolve this the suggestion is that you consciously sing the song (out loud if possible) all the way through, taking it to its natural conclusion – and if possible give it a big and emphatic finish.
Method 4 – visualisation. On the assumption that you don’t have a book of anagrams with you and can’t sing the tune out loud then this method relies on you picturing the earworm being played on a record player, lifting the stylus and hearing it stop. For those with no real memory or experience of record players perhaps picturing an mp3 player and stopping, changing, or even deleting the earworm.
Method 5 – chew something. This is another variant on degrading your short term auditory memory. A proven way to undermine your short term memory is to mouth a random series of words or letters whilst trying to complete a task. Research by the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading, suggests that chewing gum or a cinnamon stick has the same effect on an earworm.
Whilst an earworm might be common, and pose nothing but irritation to most people, the research is shedding new light on intrusive thoughts such as OCD and the management of intrusive sound such as tinnitus.
If you enjoyed this why not sign up for my monthly newsletter here with three stories every month on the quirky side of relationships and psychology.