How do earworms work?

Wednesday 22nd May 2024, 12.30pm

Have you ever had a song stuck in your head that you just can’t shake? A few bars or lyrics that just keep looping all day long? Well, we have delved into the science behind ‘earworms’ with Dr Jacob Kingsbury Downs from the Faculty of Music.

A melodic mix of musical imagery, auditory neuroscience, memory and impressive compositions can leave a little ditty echoing in our minds long after the last note has played.

But what you really want to know is how to get rid of an earworm, right? Tune in to find out!

Read Transcript

Emily Elias: Just a few well-placed doot doot doots, and Baby Shark will be magically stuck in your head for weeks. And just when you think it’s gone, it’s back. So, on this episode of the Oxford Sparks Big Questions Podcast, we are asking “how do earworms work?”.

Hello, I’m Emily Elias, and this is the show where we seek out the brightest minds at the University of Oxford, and we ask them the big questions. And for this one, we have found a researcher who not only loves music, but can understand why it gets stuck in our brains.

Jacob Kingsbury Downs: So I am Dr Jacob Kingsbury Downs. I’m Departmental Lecturer in Music at the University of Oxford.

Emily: Okay, thank you so much for joining us today. I know that earworms aren’t necessarily your specialty, but you’re gonna give it a go.

Jacob: Absolutely.

Emily: Okay, so let’s start out by first defining our terms. What is an earworm?

Jacob: So, we tend to use the word earworm to describe the experience of having a short segment, say, anywhere between five and 30 seconds of melody or even speech, that seems to have been stuck in our heads. And by stuck in our heads, we’re talking here about the peculiar and sometimes highly irritating experience of having this catchy bit of sound occupying our minds, sometimes long after we’ve last heard it. And this word stuck is quite important And some people talk about earworms in musical terms as sort of sticky music in some way.

Emily: Do you have any examples of earworms that you have suffered with in the past?

Jacob: Oh, I often get ‘Bad Romance, Lady Gaga’.. the rah rah hmhmhmmm, that


Emily: I have a football chant that gets stuck in my head. So this one time, I was on a bus, and there was a little kid that just kept singing “one nil to the Arsenal, one nil to the Arsenal. One nil to the Arsenal.” And it just repeats over and over my head, probably until I die.

Jacob: Incredible. I’m so sorry to hear that.

Emily: Is there a reason that explains this phenomenon of, like, why it happens?

Jacob: Well, I mean, I suppose if you sort of start from the most basic, sort of premise. One thing to acknowledge is that earworms aren’t explicitly acoustic. That is, we’re not actually hearing the song or melody or football chant on a loop, as we might a sort of sound or piece of music in our environment. We’re sort of imagining it to some extent. Now, earworms are very real experiences, of course, but in psychology, we sometimes refer to things like earworms as auditory images.

Emily: What does that mean? Auditory images?

Jacob: Yeah. I mean, you can sort of see the logic, I think, if you imagine the connection between the word imagine and the word image. So think about it in this way, we often talk about seeing something in our mind’s eye. So here we’re sort of talking about the mental faculty of visualisation. It’s not vision itself, there’s no specific visible stimulus in our environments that we’re perceiving when we visualise. But we are able to nonetheless sort of picture something, whether it’s kind of something completely imagined or something that we’ve seen before. And so by dragging this turn of phrase, this idea of the mind’s eye, over to another sense, we might talk about sort of hearing something in our mind’s ear. And if we sort of intend to play something in our heads, you know, for example, if we try to imagine a melody or look at a musical score and try to hear that, we might talk about that as being a form of voluntary musical imagery. But earworms tend to be called involuntary musical imagery, which, again, I think, speaks a bit to the idea of them being rather annoying.

Emily: They’re annoying, but they are, as you say, catchy. Is it a case that I’m being manipulated into remembering this tiny bit of melody or is it just completely random, a fluke?

Jacob: So I think there’s sort of two interesting things to think about there. One is sort of the psychological basis and the other is more to do with sort of what makes a really good earworm. So if you. I mean, there’s a good amount of sort of empirical research on earworms in the fields of music psychology and auditory neuroscience. And the most studies sort of suggest that a piece of music should be quite catchy. And so if you hear someone humming a tune or you catch a segment of a track on the radio, that sometimes sort of gets stuck. But one thing to note is that earworms aren’t always caused by sort of direct perception of a sound in our present environment. So it doesn’t have to be a recent thing. They can also be caused by other stimuli that ultimately trigger what we would call sort of involuntary memories.

So, for example, sometimes you could read a word or go to a certain place or even sort of just think about a certain person or experience and this could trigger this kind of involuntary memory of a melody in some way. And so thinking about this as well, we talk sort of about things being on loops when we hear them as earworms, a little bit just keeps going around in this sort of cyclical sense. Some of the suggestion is that this might have something to do with what we call working memory in psychology which is sort of the capacity to hold some information in our minds for a certain number of seconds. Some people refer to sort of the contents in the moment conscious experience as being working memory. So if we relate this idea of working memory to hearing and listening, psychologists sometimes talk about a phonological loop, which is….

Emily: Goodness, you’re going to have to explain that.

Jacob: Yeah, it’s a bit of a mouthful. It’s essentially the kind of the part of working memory that deals with auditory information. So it’s this kind of, I think we can kind of understand this sense of it being on loop, you know, in working memory.

Emily: So with you and Bad Romance with me and the football chants, is there something that we’re seeing that is refreshing a memory and that is causing us to be brought back into this loop?

Jacob: Yeah, I think so. I mean, if you have a look, for example, at some of the more neuroscientific research, so stuff that’s sort of got people in MRIs and, triggered earworms in them.

Emily: Well, we love it when people shove people in MRIs to learn things.

Jacob: Yeah. So the danger of headphones in MRIs, I’m sure. But, with earworms that, you know, I mean, I should say with music, you know, music perception involves quite widespread brain activation. You know, everything from kind of motor components of the brain that help us deal with kind of motor actions and also, you know, everything in between.

So there’s, as you might expect, earworms do kind of light up the auditory cortex, this sort of section of the temporal lobe that’s very much involved in sort of music and sound perception. And also, as you might expect, some of the parts of the brain that we would associate with the kind of encoding of or retrieval of memories, are also lit up. So these are also in that similar kind of area in the temple temporal lobe, for example, the hippocampus, this part of the brain.

But I think to answer your question, one of the interesting things that this seems to connect these things, you might expect, you know, sound and memory, these sorts of areas that we associate with those in the brain. We also then have a connection with regions of the brain that govern our emotional and affective responses, such as, the amygdala, which deals more with sort of negative emotions, and the ventral striatum, which is sort of positive emotions. So what that seems to suggest is that there’s definitely a kind of connection here with, some sense of kind of emotional, you know, whether it’s a kind of visceral experience of hating the tune or whether it’s actually a kind of, drawing together of the memory that we have of that melody, and our ability to sort of have it stuck in our heads.

Emily: Cause, yeah, like, I’m definitely not going around listening on Spotify to football chants. Is it a case that, like, an earworm has to be something that I really, really love or I really, really hate or gives me some form of extreme reaction in order for it to get lodged in my brain on a loop?

Jacob: It’s a really, really interesting point. I mean, when we think about what constitutes an earworm, I mean, the most common thing that people talk about is repetition. So, repetitive patterns, usually where you have sort of the same thing three times and then something different, what you might refer to as a kind of AAAB structure. The perfect example there, I think, is Baby Shark, which sort of does the same thing three times and then something slightly different on the fourth. It’s like a perfect earworm, is what we sort of suggest. And then other studies are suggesting this kind of up tempo music with a strong beat, you know, kind of thing that you’d have in clubs or sort of dance music situations. And also sort of melodies which have sort of big leaps in them, you know, jumps from kind of lower to higher pitches. These are all things that you might associate dance music with something that you love or that you hate. But either way, it’s quite an intense experience that you have of those sorts of things.

But when it comes to actually thinking about whether familiarity or even pleasure is at the basis of whether or not something is an earworm for us, we might think, for example, of that experience we often have of when you fall in love with a song and you just discovered it and you’re playing it again and again, potentially to the distaste of partners or housemates. And there’s a relationship between the amount that we like the song or sort of take pleasure from listening to it and then the amount of times that we’ve heard it. So there’s this kind of honeymoon period, if you like, of repeated listening where it’s really pleasurable and we come to love the song even more and we get loads of good feelings and emotions from listening to it lots. And then suddenly we’ve over listened to it and it’s sort of, you know, we start to hate it.

And I wonder if this kind of phenomenon speaks a little bit to the irritating nature of some earworms. It’s almost like a kind of overexposure to the sounds of the mind’s ear, if you like. But I mean, that doesn’t necessarily make sense when you think about how songs that we simply hate from the very first listen can get stuck as earworm. So I wouldn’t say, in the evidence, there’s not a particularly strong correlation between the sort of the pleasure, what we would call the hedonic value of a piece of music and our susceptibility to becoming earwormed.

Emily: Okay, so here’s another really big question then. If there’s no rhyme or reason to it, is there a cure?

Jacob: Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were just a simple cure? I mean, there are some theories and some of them are backed up with empirical research. Always what we want. One of the key theories really has to do with distraction, as you might expect. So doing something else to take your mind off this sticky bit of music.

Some research suggests doing things like crosswords, sudokus and other sorts of puzzles can help. There’s actually a really interesting study from the University of Reading about chewing gum as a potential antidote to earworms. They think it kind of might have something to do with blocking the faculties of what we call sub vocalisation. This kind of inner speech, inner monologue we unconsciously use to make sense of auditory stimuli. So in this sort of action of chewing, we sort of stop these sub vocalisations from happening. That’s a fun one. I mean, probably great news for the chewing gum industry.

Emily: If you’re in the big gum industry, you gotta be loving that.

Jacob: Is big gum the new big pharmer, I wonder. Yeah, it’s an interesting one. I mean, as I say though, the unfortunate one is that the easiest way of distracting yourself from an earworm is to get another one stuck. So if you’re totally fed up of the earworm that you’ve had, you know, think about, you know, Baby Shark.

Emily: Maybe we should just trade.

Jacob: The age old problem of not being able to get in someone else’s head, I suppose. But I’m sure we could try.

Emily: This podcast was brought to you by Oxford Sparks from the University of

Oxford with music by John Lyons and special thanks to Dr Jacob Kingsbury Downs.

Tell us what you think about this podcast. You can find us on social media. We are @OxfordSparks. We also have a website

I’m Emily Elias. Bye for now.