Earworms BEWARE!

Have you ever been plagued by an un-ending loop of incomplete music running through your mind, and no matter how hard you try to stop it, or “un-think” it, the  music remains?

Chances are, you’re suffering from an earworm infestation.

To clarify, this affliction is not caused by an insect of the same name, but rather is a  mantifestation of one’s own brain.  The term, earworm,  is a translation of the German word Ohrwurm, used to describe the “musical itch” of the brain.

Sometimes I don’t mind obsessing over a tune or a random mental composition, it’s the ad jingles, pop disasters, or recurring spoken word phrases that drive me nuts! As I’m quite susceptible to earworms or “Stuck Song Syndrome,” I did some research in hopes of finding a way to rid myself of the unwanted varieties. 

The earliest psychological study of  involuntary musical imagery, earworms, was written by Theodore Reik (1888-1969) in a monograph entitiled The Haunting Melody (1953).  

Reik identifies two types of reoccurring melodies that enter daytime thoughts without our permission. He states that there is a mundane, uninteresting type of repetition that is known to all and usually occurs because of exposure to music, after attending a concert etc… and the “haunting melody.”  The latter are musical thoughts derived from sublimated emotional trauma, i.e., emotional experiences blocked from conscious thought, and brought to our attention  in the form of music that is in someway associated with these hidden problems. 

He writes:  “The haunting tune can be trifling and insignificant, but the emotions and problems in its emergence are always meaningful. They reflect the concealed basic demands of the drives and fears of the person and seek to convey his most important interests and drives …melody expresses something else, more than words can say.’  Source.  

Building on Reik’s analysis,  Francis Joseph Leach  wrote about 4 different types of musical imagery or, Inner Music:

There are four theoretical types, consisting of two voluntary types and two non-voluntary types. Both of the first two types are willed. The third and fourth types are more mysterious, occurring spontaneously:

  1. Voluntarily remembered music: by using the will, the subject can mentally hear a work previously heard, from memory.
  2. Voluntary new music: the subject can mentally hear a voluntary improvization of new music.
  3. Non-voluntary remembered music: a subject can become aware that without his intending it, some piece he has heard in the past is going through his mind.
  4. Non-voluntary new inner music: the subject can become aware that he is inwardly hearing music which he has never heard before, and which does not exist as a previously composed piece. This happens spontaneously by a process we do not understand.

He goes on to write about non-voluntary remembered music:

Penfleld’s research is particularly important to a thorough understanding of type three, coming back directly from memories of previously ocurring music and depending on the brain’s capacity to record music. Penfield stimulated the brain of a patient (identified as S.B.) with a galvanic probe transmitting a weak electric current. The patient said, “There was a piano there and someone was playing. I could hear the song, you know.” Stimulating the point again, the patient said that someone was singing “Oh Marie, Oh Marie.” When the point was stimulated a further time, S.B. heard the same song and explained that it was the theme song of a radio program.

Penfield concluded that the electrode evoked a single recollection, not a generalization or mixture of memories. He also concluded that the response was not voluntary. It is important that Penfleld discovered that the experience came back with all its original intensity in such a way that it was not possible for the patient to relive the past without also feeling the old emotions.  (emphasis added) Penfleld, Wilder. Memory Mechanisms. A.M.A. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry. 67 (1952): 178-198.

A more recent study confirms that the brain, specifically the  auditory cortex, is actively involved in subconscious “counting along” and trying to fill in the gaps of known melodies. In an attempt to “see” human brain activity when hearing and recalling music, researchers at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, undertook a study on musical imagery.  Reaserchers conducting the study, Musical Imagery: Sound of Silence Activates Auditory Cortex, asked: 

15 students to identify which songs were familiar or unfamiliar to them, thus developing an individualised playlist for each subject. The Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction and the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine were included among familiar songs with lyrics, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and the theme from The Pink Panther among familiar instrumental tunes.

“When the subjects were in the MRI scanner, which we used to look at the brain activity, we played them parts of a song and then hit a mute button for three or five seconds,” says David Kraemer, a graduate student of cognitive science and the lead researcher on the Dartmouth study. “We didn’t tell them that we were going to cut out the sound. For songs people were familiar with, they automatically put the missing part in there.” The auditory cortex continued “singing”. When listening to an unfamiliar song, the subjects didn’t hear anything after the sound stopped. “They didn’t try to continue the song,” says Kraemer. [Earworms or other mental music imagery] regardless of whether they occur deliberately or spontaneously,  appear to be “perception in reverse,” says Kraemer.  “That is, the process follows the neural path that was involved in the actual perception, only backwards.” (Guardian, Can’t Get It Out of My Head, Thursday 22 June 2006)

These findings suggest that imagined music is a product of the brain’s activity in the auditory cortex  and, since earworms are primarily non-voluntary remembered music, we can infer that earworms are mental manifestations as well.  If  earworms are tied to emotional events or, are the by-products of a sublimated experience, what triggers them?

According to Professor James Kellaris of the University of Cincinati Earworm Research Centre the short, honest answer is: no one knows for certain.  But there are some interesting, albeit speculative theories:

Kellaris’ (2001) Theory of Cognitive Itch [posits that] certain properties of music may be analogous to biochemical agents, such as histamines, which cause in itch on the skin.  Exposure to such music may cause a sort of “cognitive itch” in one’s mind.  The only way to scratch a cognitive itch is to repeat the offending music mentally.  But this only exacerbates the itch, trapping the hapless victim in an involuntary cycle of repeated itching and scratching. 

Stuck songs may be like stuck thoughts – a temporary failure of our mental control system.  In his theory of ironic processes, Psychologist Daniel Wegner points out that to suppress an undesired thought we must keep that thought we are suppressing in the back of our mind.  So, to suppress our thinking about a song, we must remember what it is we are trying not to think about.[emphasis added] 

Another speculative theory based on an acoustical engineering concept:  resonant frequencies.  Just as a structure will vibrate sympathetically in concert with certain tones (“resonant frequencies”), certain songs may activate an analogous mechanism in the human body.  [However], no one has explored relationships between stuck songs and the body’s natural rhythms, such as pulse or respiration rates.

Yet another informal theory holds that earworms may keep our mental engines idling, such that we can make a faster start when circumstances compel us to think.  As one survey respondent speculated, “Perhaps earworms are to the brain what chewing gum is to the jaws – just a way to stay busy.”

Back in Kellaris’ lab, the professor and his research team have developed some suggestions to help you rid yourself of unwanted earworms:

Strategies for Getting a Song “Un-stuck”

  1. Distraction –  Earworms like to feed on idle minds.  So get busy (mentally).  Passive activities, such as watching television, may not work as well as more mentally engaging activities, such as reading.
  2. Replacement –  Some people try to “crowd out” or replace an earworm with a different, less annoying song.  Warning:  the replacement tune can become an earworm itself.  So if you try this strategy, choose music that is relatively complex and less familiar.
  3. Completion –  Songs can become stuck when we can’t remember how they go.  Try listening to or singing through a stuck song from beginning to end.  Some people report making up a coda or ending to bring a sense of closure to an earworm episode.  Something as simple as “shave and a hair cut (pause) two bits!” can signal finality.
  4. Tune Tag –  Misery loves company.  So why not share the annoyance of an earworm?  Some people – including Mark Twain in the story “Punch Brother, Punch” – report that a stuck tune can be dislodged by passing it on to another individual.  Tag – you’re it!
  5. Other strategies –  Walk or exercise to a tempo and rhythm that is different from your earworm.  Eat something hot and spicy.  (This is actually a distraction strategy.)  Visualize the earworm crawling out of your head, moving to the beat of the annoying song he is singing.  At the end of the song, he falls out.  (Feel free to stomp on him at that point – just to show him who’s boss!) 

What NOT to do

  1. Try not to worry about when the earworm will stop!  Research indicates that worry may
    actually exacerbate (prolong) an earworm episode.
  2. Trying “harder” not to think about an earworm may actually make it worse.  In many
    situations, trying harder usually leads to better results.  Not so with thought suppression!  Let it go.  Like a head cold, an earworm will run its course.  You can try to treat it proactively, but in time it will dissipate on its own.

I’ve found that Completion, Distraction and Replacement to be the most effective strategies, and so along with some friends at Hoopla and Eclectic Groove, I’m offering a free Earworm Completion, Distraction and Replacement seminar tonight in Toronto!

See the details below:

$3.50 drinks, no cover, lasers/lights/and FX are guaranteed to banish any unwanted musical imagery!

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