Earworms: Why Do Songs Get Stuck in Your Head?

Earworms

When brushing your teeth in the morning, waiting for a traffic light, or putting away groceries, have you ever had a specific song or, more often, a song fragment, get stuck in your head, only to seemingly loop endlessly? Perhaps it became so embedded it drove you to distraction or even kept you awake at night? If so, you’re not alone. This experience, aka earworms or brain worms, affects just about everyone—around 99% of us.

What are Earworms?

Research and literature call earworms “involuntary musical imagery” or INMI. It’s also referred to as “stuck song syndrome” or “sticky music.” No matter what you call it, these song snippets can appear from out of nowhere, with no reason or explanation, and they’re involuntary. 1 They tend to burrow in when you’re less focused or between projects.

The term itself didn’t stick until 1982, when it was borrowed from the German word “ohrwurm.” But the concept has gone on for centuries. In the 16th century, the common phrase used was earwigs, as in the insect.

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How Do Songs Get Stuck in Your Head?

Songs that get stuck in your head have a lot to do with memory. Music can link to memories, and certain songs may be triggered by a memory, a smell, or a visual experience. Perhaps you’ll notice certain events in your life stimulate a melody. For example, teaching your child or grandchild how to tie their shoes triggers a song from childhood, or driving by the high school in your hometown turns on a melody from when you used to be a student. This is especially true of repetitive songs.

While it can be annoying for a not-so-favorite song to get stuck on repeat, there may be times when the track is less irritating. Then it may feel less like a nuisance and drive you to want to listen in and relive that memory.

In fact, many people don’t find earworms all that unpleasant as they’re often songs we like. 2 Most earworms are from either pop songs (e.g., Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” or Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”) or rock classics (e.g., “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, or “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple). In other words, they’re often catchy songs we enjoy singing along with. 3

But when the song starts to drive you to distraction, is there any way to get rid of an earworm?!

6 Ways to Eliminate Earworms

1. Chew on It

One surprising way to get rid of an earworm is to simply chew on something—for example, have some lunch or chew on some gum. This can distract your brain from the song because you’re using your mouth for another reason.

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2. Put it On Replay

Listening to the whole song may not help as many popular songs are designed to stick with you, but repeating certain unrelated sounds may. Using a short word or phrase like Doh, Ta, Ti, repeated over and over can help dislodge the unwanted tune. There’s less room for the song memory to play, so you may be able to tune it out faster.

3. Start a Conversation

Another way to distract the brain can be to start a conversation. Again, it appears to work because it gives your mouth something else to focus on, distracting you from the earworm.

4. Puzzle it Out

Pick up a crossword or sudoku to give your brain another focus. As long as you don’t choose one that’s too challenging or too easy, you may be able to refocus your brain to eliminate the earworm.

5. Turn on a New Song

If the song you’ve got stuck swimming through your mind isn’t a favorite (“Baby Shark”?), try changing the station. That is, listen to a different song that you actually do like. Often, the new tune can help dislodge the earworm without becoming one itself. 4

6. Let it Be

Finally, perhaps the best thing you can do is just accept the tune and let it play. Most earworms last no more than 24 hours, and with rare exception, there are no lasting effects. 5 Allowing the earworm to simply fade away rather than actively fighting against it is likely the best, most effective option.