Ear-resistible: Why there are some songs we just can’t get out of our head


A new study explains the kind of tunes we can’t seem to shake off.

Have you ever had a song that you couldn’t get out of your head? You may not even like the tune, or remember where it came from, but there’s just something about it that has it stuck on replay.

If there’s a track running through your mind that you can’t stop, chances are you’ve picked up what’s known as an ‘earworm’ – a catchy piece of music that involuntarily wriggles around inside our heads.

Music researchers have been searching for the secrets behind these catchy tunes in their tempos and pitches.

But new research published in the journal Music & Science suggests a different explanation for the kinds of music we can’t seem to shake off.

The key, says Professor Emery Schubert from the University of New South Wales, is repetition.

“Drawing together the literature, it appears there’s an essential characteristic necessary for a song to roll out the earworms – the music itself must have some repetition in it,” he says.

But he says the repetition in a song is only one part of the equation.

There are several preconditions for an earworm to occur, including recency and familiarity with the music. But to activate an earworm, we must also be in what’s called a low-attentional state, according to the study.

“It’s sometimes referred to as mind wandering, which is a state of relaxation. In other words, if you’re deeply engaged with the environment you are in, really concentrating on a task, then you won’t get an earworm.”

While earworms can be an unwelcome distraction at times, many people find them enjoyable.

“It’s a bit of a misconception that they’re a problem,” Prof. Schubert says. “We’re starting to see more research suggesting many find getting an earworm to be quite pleasant and it is not an issue that needs solving.”

While an earworm is not a medical condition or considered a danger in most cases, for those of us who want to get rid of an unwelcome tune in our heads, there are many theories on how to do this.

“You may be able to wrap up an earworm by either finishing off the music, consciously thinking of another piece of music, or by removing yourself from the triggers, such as words or memories that relate to the music or lyrics.”

Prof. Schubert also says that research into earworms gives us insights into consciousness and how we organise and recall material.

“We don’t go out to find earworms, but earworms find us,” Prof. Schubert says. “There are still several puzzles we need to solve to understand not only their nature but what it might mean for cognition and memory.”

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