It happens to us all: You hear a catchy tune on the radio or in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, and later that day, you find yourself humming the chorus over and over again. Why is that awful Justin Bieber song still in my head, you ask yourself. Well, the answer is simple: Blame earworms.
What Is It?
“Earworms” is the incessant, unrelenting, and grating repetition of a fraction of a song. Whether it’s the chorus or the hook, just a few seconds of the musical piece is simply inescapable.
The Science of Earworms
Believe it or not, there’s a true science to earworms. Music psychologists have revealed that some songs are fundamentally more likely to cause earworms than other songs. It’s not just a “catchy” guilty pleasure; it’s the track's strategic pace, melody, and overall structure that reels us in and won’t let go. A song must be simple, yet not artless; unique, but not complex.
Generally, songs that are faster than others and more upbeat in tempo are more likely to get stuck in our heads. And songs with a full-circle rhythmic pattern only need to be heard once for us to cling to their entirety. Whether it’s the slow-fast-slow layout of a song, or its high-low-high pitch configuration, something about an expected redundancy reinforces the song into our memory. The simple melodic outline of these types of songs helps the brain to recall every aspect: the lyrics, the beat, the octave, the notes.
The Songs You Can’t Escape…
So, when thinking of songs we’ve known literally our entire lives: It’s no wonder our parents sung “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” to us as kids. The elements of most childhood songs made it easy to remember. And similarly, when we use the same tune and structure of these ballads to create songs out of mathematic equations and scientific formulas, we remember the arithmetic and chemistry come test day!
Getting Rid of the Ear Bug
While chances are you won’t stop listening to Lady Gaga on your morning run, or belting Beyoncé during your morning commute to work, there are a few tips to avoiding earworms:
- Sing another song. Really, it’s that simple.
- Give all of your attention to any form of practice. Study something, write in a journal, read a news article—just do something with full devotion. This will distract your mind from the last two hours of rewind-and-repeat. (Ideally, you could play an instrument, with a totally different musical composition.)
- Turn on the radio to a different genre of music. Or, bust out an old CD with throwback songs. Whatever it is, just tune in to something totally different.
- Be active. Get outside and exercise, free of music. (If you bicycle to a workout-specific playlist, chances are, even if you’re able to get the previous earworm song un-stuck, you’ll just replace it with something similar. Avoid the workout-only playlists when possible.)
So, next time you find yourself jamming out to Justin Bieber in the shower, don’t blame the Bieb. And don’t blame yourself. Blame the earworm.