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Why You Can't Get Some Songs Out Of Your Head

5 April 2023 | 1:18 pm | Mary Varvaris

We all know some songs that are ear-resistible.

(Kylie Minogue via YouTube)

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Have you ever wondered why you couldn’t get that song out of your head? Is there some kind of scientific reason behind it beyond loving the music? The University of Sydney has answered your question with a new study on this very subject.

Professor Emery Schubert, an expert in music’s impact on our psychology and the author of the systematic review study from the Empirical Musicology Laboratory in the School of the Arts & Media, says the critical element to an earworm is repetition.

“Drawing together the literature, it appears there’s an essential characteristic necessary for a song to roll out the earworms – the music itself must have some repetition in it,” Schubert said. 

“Most research on earworms to date analyses what’s in the hook – the short riff or passage to catch the ear of the listener. But what hasn’t been considered is that the hook is invariably repeated in the music, most commonly in the chorus,” Schubert added. He goes on to share that perhaps the musical features aren’t behind the earworm as long as there is repetition somewhere. 

According to a new study in the journal Music & Science, our minds must be in a low-attentional state to activate the earworm.

Schubert explained, “It’s sometimes referred to as mind wandering, which is a state of relaxation. In other words, if you’re deeply engaged with the environment you are in, really concentrating on a task, then you won’t get an earworm. 

“Inside your relaxed mind, you don’t have to follow the exact structure of the music. Your mind is free to wander wherever it likes, and the easiest place to go is the repeated fragment and to simply repeat it,” he continued.

But what about the earworms for songs you don’t even like? The study suggests that the song stuck in your head doesn’t care if you enjoy it; it’s all about the similarity to familiar music and the repetition that will have you singing that song in your head.

There are no specific methods to rid an earworm from your brain, but a few theories: “You may be able to wrap up an earworm by either finishing off the music, consciously thinking of another piece of music, or by removing yourself from the triggers, such as words or memories that relate to the music or lyrics,” Schubert said. 

“We don’t go out to find earworms, but earworms find us,” he added, lending insight into how we organise and recall material. “There are still several puzzles we need to solve to understand not only their nature but what it might mean for cognition and memory.”

You can read the published study in Music & Science.