why do songs get stuck in your head

Also referred to as stuck song syndrome, earworms are a common phenomenon in the general population where tunes involuntarily arise and stick in the mind on a recurring basis. This may happen spontaneously or it may be triggered by emotion, word associations or having recently heard the tune. Up to 98% of people in the Western world have experienced earworms. An earworm is defined as the inability to dislodge a song and prevent it from repeating itself in one s head, which is also described as a cognitive itch. This earworm experience has been a subject of keen interest to neurologists over the last decade. At Dartmouth College, David Kraemer and colleagues investigated the phenomenon using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). As reported in the journal
Nature in March 2005, the team discovered that when participants listened to a song or song fragment, fMRI showed activation of a brain region called the left primary auditory cortex, which is the region associated with hearing. This brain region was also activated when participants thought of the song or tried to make up parts of the songs that were not played. This suggests that an earworm may be fed by the memory mechanism of the auditory cortex. An example of a memory system in this brain region is the phonological loop. The auditory complex lies in the frontal lobe, the brain area associated with verbal short-term memory and one way in which researchers have described the phonological loop is as a short loop of recording tape that continuously stores a small amount of auditory information. The majority of auditory information is either saved in the form of long-term memory or forgotten, but songs seem to be retained in the form of short-term memory over a greater length of time.


Repetition Theory and Cognitive Itch At the University of Cincinnati, a study by James Kellaris suggested that the reason the short-term memory endures earworms could be that some songs have certain features that stimulate the brain to react abnormally. These properties that capture the brain s attention could subsequenlty cause the brain to play the song again in the loop. Kellaris also found that rather than this repetition resulting in the song being removed from the loop, it extends the presence of the earworm, thereby producing the cognitive itch. Kellaris presented these findings at the Proceedings of the Society for Consumer Psychology Winter 2003 Conference in New Orleans. Interestingly, researchers have found that musicians or people who report that music is a major part of their life, are more likely to experience earworms on a frequent basis. This supports Kellaris s theory about repetition, since musicians often have to employ repetition as part of perfecting their musical skills. Reviewed by: Dr Tomislav Me trovi, MD, PhD If you ever find yourself singing along to a pop song for hours on end, you know how difficult it can be to get a catchy tune out of your head. Now, psychologists believe they have figured out exactly why certain songs tend to stick in our heads more than others. The phenomenon is called involuntary musical imagery (INMI) more commonly known as earworms. are an extremely common phenomenon and an example of spontaneous cognition, the study s lead author, Kelly Jakubowski, PhD, of Durham University in the U. K. , told CBS News.


Psychologists know that humans spend up to 40 percent of our days engaging in spontaneous cognition and are starting to try to understand why our brains spend so much time thinking thoughts unrelated to our present task and how such thoughts might be useful. The research, published in the academic journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Art, found that earworms are usually faster tunes with a fairly generic and easy-to-remember melody. They also tend to have some additional unique characteristics that set them apart from other songs. Prime examples of such earworms, the study found, include Bad Romance by, Don t Stop Believing by Journey, and Can t Get You Out Of My Head by. Our findings show that you can to some extent predict which songs are going to get stuck in people s heads based on the song s melodic content, Jakubowski said in a statement. These musically sticky songs seem to have quite a fast tempo along with a common melodic shape and unusual intervals or repetitions like we can hear in the opening riff of Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple or in the chorus of Bad Romance. For the study, the researchers surveyed 3,000 people about their most frequent earworm tunes. They arrived at a set of 100 songs and then compared the melodic features of those songs to 100 other tunes that had not been named but were comparable in terms of popularity and how recently they had been on music charts. The analysis showed that those songs most likely to get stuck in people s heads shared common melodic contours, mainly found in Western pop music. For example, such songs often follow the pattern where the first phrase rises in pitch and the second falls (think Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star ).


The opening riff of Moves Like Jagger by one of the top-named earworm tunes in the study also follows this common contour pattern. Additionally, earworms typically have an unusual interval structure, such as unexpected leaps or more repeated notes than you would expect to hear in an average pop song, the researchers found. Examples of this include My Sharona by the Knack and In The Mood by Glen Miller Previous research has shown a person might be more prone to earworms if they are constantly exposed to music, and certain personality traits such as obsessive-compulsive or neurotic tendencies can make people more likely to get songs stuck in their heads. A small 2015 study, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, concluded that the size and shape of one s brain may also play a role. Specifically, researchers found that the frequency with which people were affected by earworms depended upon the thickness of several brain regions. While there are no scientifically proven ways to rid yourself of earworms, experts have some tips. Jakubowski recommends trying to distract yourself by thinking of or listening to a different song. If that doesn t work, try engaging with the song, as many people report that actually listening to an earworm song all the way through can help eliminate having it stuck on a loop. Finally, a study published last year in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests a simple way to disrupt the voluntary memory recollection that gets songs stuck in your head: chew a piece of gum.

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