PYT was triggered by the letters EYC The brain has its own jukebox. A personal sound system for your private listening pleasure. The downside is that it has a mind of its own. It often chooses the songs and it frequently gets stuck, playing a particular tune over and over until you’re sick of it. Psychologists have nicknamed these mental tunes “earworms” (from the German Ohrwurm). A study from 2009 found that they can last anywhere between minutes to hours, but that they’re only unpleasant in a minority of cases. Now a team led by Victoria Williamson, in partnership with BBC 6 Music and other international radio stations, has surveyed thousands of people to try to find out the various triggers that cause earworms to start playing. Radio listeners and web visitors were invited to fill in an online form or email the station about their latest earworm experience and the circumstances that preceded it.
Just over 600 participants provided all the information that was needed for a detailed analysis. Predictably, the most frequently cited circumstance was recent exposure to a particular song. “My bloody earworm is that bloody George Harrison song you played yesterday,” one 6 Music listener wrote in. “Woke at 4.30 this morning with it going round me head. PLEASE DON’T EVER PLAY IT AGAIN.” In relation to this kind of earworm-inducing exposure, the survey revealed the manifold ways that we come into contact with music in modern life, including: music in public places, in gyms, restaurants and shops; radio music; live music; ring tones; another person’s humming or singing; and music played in visual media on TV and on the Internet.
However, a song doesn’t have to be heard to worm its way inside your head. Many listeners described how earworms had been triggered by association – contact with certain people, rhythms, situations, sounds or words – sometimes with quite obscure links. “On my journey, I read a number plate on a car that ended in the letters ‘EYC’ which is NOTHING LIKE ‘PYT’ (by Michael Jackson),” said another listener, “but for some unknown reason, there it was – the song was in my head.”
Memories also triggered earworms – for example, driving along the same stretch of road that a song was first heard. And also anticipation. Another listener had “Alive” by Pearl Jam stuck in their head in the days before attending a Pearl Jam concert.
Mood and stress were other triggers. “Prokofiev ‘Montagues and Capulets’ opening theme. I was writing an email about a distressing subject. I suspect the mood of the piece matched my mood at the time,” said an amateur musician. Another listener had Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror playing in her mind ever since she’d been thinking about the star non-stop and feeling sad (the survey coincided with his death in 2009).
A final theme to emerge from the survey was the way that earworms start playing when we’re in a “low attention state”, bored or even asleep. “My earworm is ‘Mulder and Scully’ by Catatonia. In fact I dreamt about running through woods and this was the sound track in my head,” said a 6 Music listener. Another survey respondent experienced K’naan “Waving Flag” when mind wandering through a monotonous lab task.
Theoretically, Williamson and her colleagues said earworms can be understood as another manifestation of what Ebbinghaus in the nineteenth century identified as “involuntary memory retrieval”. They could even provide a new window through which to study that phenomenon.
“While musical imagery is a skill that many (especially musicians) can utilise to their advantage, involuntary musical imagery (INMI) is an involuntary, spontaneous, cognitive intrusion that, while not necessarily unpleasant or worrying, can prove hard to control,” the researchers concluded. “The present study has classified the breadth of circumstances associated with the onset of an INMI episode in everyday life and provided insights into the origins of the pervasive phenomenon, as well as an illustration of how these different contexts might interact.”
What about you? What earworms have you experienced lately and what was the context? Please use comments to share your earworm experiences.
Williamson, V., Jilka, S., Fry, J., Finkel, S., Mullensiefen, D., and Stewart, L. (2011). How do “earworms” start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735611418553
Link to Earwormery, the website used by the authors of this study to survey participants’ experiences.
Link to previous Digest item on earworms, “A natural history of the Earworm – the song that won’t get out of your head.”
Link to previous Digest item: “Hearing music that isn’t there.”