How It Works

Why do songs get stuck in our heads?

This irritating phenomenon has many names in the scientific literature: imagined music, involuntary musical imagery, involuntary semantic memories, intrusive songs, or slightly disconcertingly, ‘earworms’.

Hearing a song played on a loop inside your own brain is very common; the majority of people have experienced it, and for many, it is at least a weekly occurrence. Playing music, listening to songs and singing can make it happen more often, and although people most often mention it when it becomes an irritation, it is not always unpleasant. Earworms fall into the same category as spontaneous recollections of memories and mind wandering and seem to be intrusive thoughts that are beyond our conscious control. Trying to get to the bottom of the science behind them is challenging, because researchers have to rely on the subjective reports of study participants, often through diaries and surveys that track the occurrence of earworms, and the effectiveness of different strategies to try and make them go away.

One of the most popular ways to deal with an earworm seems to be just to leave it alone; enjoy the song, if you can, and allow the thought to pass. If that fails, distraction is another popular coping strategy, or some people even resort to engaging with the tune, listening to it in real life to get out of the loop inside their head. However, there is a major problem to be overcome; the more you focus on whether your attempts to get rid of the song have been successful, the more your brain is likely to go back to looping the song again. This is an idea famously explored by psychologist Daniel Wegner in his paper, Ironic Processes of Mental Control. He points out that by monitoring whether or not you have managed to successfully get rid of a thought, you might just trigger it to start up again.


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