Music psychology researcher Victoria Williamson, author of this year’s You Are the Music: How Music Reveals What It Means to be Human, gives us an official definition of earworms. An earworm is “a short snippet of music that comes unbidden into the mind and then repeats outside the will of conscious control” (from an interview in Europe’s Journal of Psychology).
A common synonym is “musical imagery,” and another is stuck song syndrome.
Why should we care about earworms? For one thing, for good or for bad, the vast majority of us have them. Furthermore, though not always unpleasant or unwanted, earworms are troublesome to many.
They may last 15-30 seconds or up to a few minutes or even hours.
Yours will often be different from mine.
As some songs are catchier than others, of course, those are more likely to become someone’s earworm. “We Are The Champions” is a biggie. “Don’t Stop Believin.” “Call Me Maybe.” “Let It Go” from Frozen. “Happy.” The list could go on and on.
A questionnaire on the University of London site Earwormery has helped scientists gather enough data to draw even more conclusions about them. (It’s still on there. Complete it and you’ll be assisting in further studies.)
As reported by BPS Research Digest, the research so far shows that triggers to earworms include:
- hearing a song repeatedly and/or frequently
- specific memories
- mood and stress
Psychologist Lauren Stewart names a few other triggers (reported in Telegraph);
- a “wandering mind”
- “altered emotional states”
- having OCD traits
For those of you whose earworms are getting on your nerves, there are methods you can use to try to get rid of them.
Noted on an NBC News site is a “trick” from Ira Hyman, Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University: “We can banish earworms from our brains by engaging in an absorbing task– something that is not too easy, but not too difficult, either.” Suggestions include reading, playing a video game, participating in sports—what works for one person will be different for the next.
Although this stands a good chance of pushing out the earworm, he warns that it could still come back. If so, “listen to something else,” he advises.
The University of London researchers echo the latter and encourage the selection of a particularly non-catchy tune as a replacement. Another suggestion: make yourself listen to the whole song or actually sing it.
If, however, you have an audience around you for the latter, consider something that’s happened to me (or because of me): while your singing could indeed eliminate your earworm it also could simultaneously make you an “earworm carrier”—when someone else “catches” it, in other words. And some people are bound not to like this.