Why Is That Song Stuck in My Head?!

Why Is That Song Stuck in My Head?!


You’re scrolling down your tumblr dash when
you see an impossible piece of news about your favorite TV show. It sounds too good
to be true, but you click anyway. And there he is in all his glory: Rick Astley,
singing about how he’s never gonna give you up. You’ve been rick rolled. And the worst part
is, you know that song is going to stay with you the rest of the day, a short snippet repeating
itself over and over until you want to tear your ears out. You’ve got yourself an earworm: a repeating
snippet of music, probably fifteen to twenty seconds long, that’s playing in your head
without you consciously making it happen.. But why? How do songs get themselves stuck
in your head? More importantly, how do you get rid of them? Turns out that which songs get stuck mostly
depends on the person. But psychologists have some ideas about why your brain puts its playlist
on repeat, and there are few ways to hit pause — including bubble gum and word puzzles. The term “earworm” entered the English
language pretty recently — sometime in the 1970s — by way of the German word Ohrwurm,
which means the same thing. But the actual phenomenon of getting a song
stuck in your head is much older — centuries-old references call it “the piper’s maggot.” To study it, scientists usually use the term
Involuntary Musical Imagery — or INMI for short — because earworms are linked to other
kinds of involuntary thoughts. A lot of our conscious thoughts are involuntary
— like, 30-40% of them. But psychologists don’t know much about how they work. Within the last five years or so, researchers
have realized that earworms are a good place to start, because they’re a little more
concrete — and therefore easier to study — than other kinds of spontaneous thoughts. Which first meant figuring out how widespread
earworms are, how they happen, and whether some people get them more than others. Earworms are incredibly common — more than
90% of people report having them. The songs usually have lyrics, as opposed
to being instrumental. And live music is more likely to stick in your brain than recorded
music, maybe because it includes a visual element, or because you’re all excited and
emotional from seeing your favorite band right there on the stage. But even though having a song stuck in your
head seems like it wouldn’t be a good time, that’s not necessarily true. Roughly three quarters of people who report
having earworms actually like — or at least don’t really care about — the song in their
heads. The annoying tunes don’t happen as much,
but we remember them more because, well, they’re annoying. If an experience is more stressful,
it’s more likely to stick in your memory. Which is probably why you remember that one
commercial jingle. Or Rick Astley. Now, if you listen to a lot of top 40, you’re
probably going to get a lot of Taylor Swift songs in your head. But you can’t get a
Led Zeppelin earworm if you’ve never heard Jimmy Page play guitar. This is why earworms tend to be songs you
know, and like — you listen to them more. You might think that certain songs are catchier
than others, so they can be more intrusive. Well, that’s an easy hypothesis to test,
because scientists do know some of the characteristics that make a song catchy. Long notes that are close together in pitch,
for example — like in the chorus of the ABBA song “Waterloo.” In a series of papers published in 2012, a
British musical psychologist named Victoria Williamson led a research group that spent
some time studying earworms. They asked people to describe the songs stuck
in their heads, and found that very few songs occurred more than once. People did tend to report songs like Jingle
Bells around the holidays, and pop songs that were constantly on the radio showed up a lot
more in the answers, too. But every other song was unique, even though
they surveyed thousands of people. So, which songs get stuck in your head just
seems to depend on who you are, your musical taste, and your personal memories. That’s because there are a bunch of different
ways to get an earworm, and some of them depend on your individual personality. In another part of the study, Williamson and
her team partnered with the BBC, surveying radio listeners to try and figure out what
gave them earworms. Unsurprisingly, the most common cause was
recent or repeated exposure to a song. So, top 40 and Jingle Bells. But there were a few others too. The researchers found that earworms can be
associated with a particular memory, and calling up that memory would also dredge up the song. It can even work in reverse — like, if you’re
going to a concert, you might get that band’s songs stuck in your head ahead of time. Certain moods, like stress or surprise, can
also make particular songs get stuck in people’s brains. They also found that earworms can happen when
your mind isn’t working very hard, like when you’re daydreaming. …or even when you’re actually dreaming,
when you’re asleep. Apparently it’s pretty common to wake up with a song already stuck
in your head. So, we know what kinds of things can cause
earworms. But why do our brains get fixated on songs at all? Scientists still aren’t exactly sure, but
they think it’s related to what’s known as the Zeigarnik effect. Bluma Zeigarnik was an early twentieth century
Soviet psychologist who noticed that servers could flawlessly remember a customer’s order
— right up until the order was delivered. Once the task was done, the memory went kaput. Zeigarnik spent time studying this effect,
and found that people who were interrupted in the middle of doing something could remember
what they were doing much better than people who were allowed to finish. In other words, your brain works hard to keep
a task that’s in progress in your working memory. But once you’re done, it doesn’t
need that information any more, so it tosses it out. That can help with productivity, since if
you start something, your brain is going to keep it on the front burner until you finish
it. In other words, listen to Shia LaBoeuf: JUST DO IT! When it comes to earworms, your brain might
be considering an intrusive song to be an unfinished task. Also in 2012, one group of researchers at
Western Washington University tested this by giving their study participants earworms.
They played songs by the Beatles and Lady Gaga, and either let them finish or stopped
the song in the middle. The songs that they paused didn’t come back
as earworms more than the finished ones, which would seem to be a point against the Zeigarnik
effect. But they noticed something interesting. If participants heard the song playing in
their heads right after listening to it, it was more likely to come back as an earworm
sometime in the next 24 hours. The researchers interpreted this as evidence
in favor of the Zeigarnik effect, proposing that the participants’ brains were treating
those songs as unfinished tasks. So, if your brain thinks it’s an unfinished
task, how do you get the local car dealership’s jingle out of your head? A few studies have come up with different
strategies. One of the strangest ideas is just to chew
gum, which might somehow interfere with the same processes your brain is using to play
the song. Most of the others take into account the Zeigarnik
effect, plus the fact that earworms tend to have lyrics. One survey, by Williamson’s group in the
UK and a psychologist named Lassi Liikkanen from Finland, combined data from thousands
of participants and examined the way people already responded to earworms. They found that people tried two main things:
distraction and engagement, both of which seemed to work. Distractions that were kind of similar to
the earworm were most effective–like listening to a similar song. Some participants even reported listening
to so-called “cure songs.” Not, like, the band The Cure — though that
could work — but particular songs that people said would push their earworm out without
becoming earworms themselves. The researchers couldn’t explain why these
specific songs didn’t become earworms, since virtually any song can, but they didn’t. Engagement, on the other hand, tries to take
advantage of the Zeigarnik effect. Lots of people know the first verse and chorus
of songs, but they might not know the second verse. So their brains can’t complete the
task and the chorus gets stuck in an infinite loop. That’s why engaging with the song by singing
along or listening to it often made it go away. Though the researchers did note that a lot
of people liked their earworms enough to not bother doing anything about them. But it was that 2012 Lady Gaga-Beatles study
out of Western Washington that had the most interesting solution to the earworm problem. The study was broken up into a few different
experiments. In each, the researchers would play either top 40 songs by Taylor Swift,
Beyonce, and Lady Gaga, or classics by the Beatles in a certain order. The participants would then be asked to solve
a puzzle. In one experiment, these were Sudoku puzzles; another used anagrams. While they were solving the puzzles, the songs
would tend to pop back into their heads. The researchers wanted to know if the difficulty
of the puzzles would make a difference in those songs becoming earworms, and whether
it mattered if the puzzles involved letters or numbers. Turns out that both of those things were important. Puzzles that were too easy weren’t distracting
enough to push the involuntary songs out of people’s brains… but neither were puzzles
that were too hard. That might seem counterintuitive, unless you’ve
ever played a tough level in Candy Crush and just given up in disgust. When a task is too
challenging, you can lose interest — and the earworm sneaks back in. Moderately difficult puzzles seemed to hit
the sweet spot, taking up just enough mental resources for people to forget about the intrusive
song. Also, the word puzzles worked better than
the number puzzles — something that a bunch of earworm studies have noticed. The researchers think that’s because most
earworms are songs that have words, so your brain treats them as a type of verbal task. But when it’s time to solve the word puzzle,
your brain needs to use the same resources, so it dumps the earworm to focus on solving
the puzzle. So there you have it: Next time you have an
earworm you need to get rid of, solve a somewhat difficult anagram. But, in case you don’t carry those around
with you all the time, the researchers suggest just reading something — as long as it’s
engaging enough to push the earworm out of your working memory. And if you find yourself getting earworms
a lot, there’s no need to worry. Music is everywhere — piped into department stores,
elevators, out of your phone when you’re on hold with customer service for two hours… It’s no wonder we get songs stuck in our
heads when we hear them constantly. It’s also possible that we’ve trained
ourselves to have a good memory for music because oral traditions go back far longer
than any writing system. For a long time, humans used songs to remember things on purpose. So, next time you’re hearing some 80s one-hit
wonder for 36 hours straight, it’s not that something’s wrong with your brain. It’s
just really into music. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
and thanks especially to our patrons on Patreon. See ya next time.