It’s one of the banes of human existence. A scourge so insidious and dastardly that it has assuredly sent some of civilisation’s best and brightest insane, and yet affects even the common man. We’re talking, of course, about getting a song stuck in your head.
We’ve all been there. You happen to catch a few seconds of a song so catchy that you unintentionally find yourself singing along to it, and before you know it, the tune or even just a snippet of it is stuck on a loop in your head.
The phenomenon is colloquially referred to as an “earworm”, but the scientific community refers to it as “involuntary musical imagery,” commonly abbreviated as INMI. However, we must say we prefer “earworm”, as the sensation is fairly comparable to having a parasite nesting in your head.
And when we say that we’ve all been there, we mean it. According to Mashable, a recent Finnish poll revealed that nearly 92 percent of people experience involuntary musical imagery at least once a week. So why does it happen and more importantly, can we stop it?
Well, the reason for why earworms exist is actually something scientists and psychologists have been trying to answer for years. Naturally, the primary cause is recent and repeated exposure to a song. However, there are other factors at play.
One of these is memory triggers. For example, you may have heard ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ at a BBQ, planting a firm memory in your head. The next time you go to a BBQ or are getting ready to attend one, the sound of Keith Richards’ timeless riff enters your mind.
These triggers come in multiple shapes and forms. Strong emotional states can serve as triggers, such as hearing a song when experiencing extreme happiness or anger, as well as visual stimuli, everything from seeing an object referenced in a song to just seeing the word.
Your brain can even start playing catchy tunes when you’re working on a boring or repetitive task, and according to a 2001 study on the properties of catchy songs, the simpler and more repetitive a tune is, the more likely it is to get burned onto your memory.
So what can you do if you happen to get struck by this terrible affliction? Well, the best way to expel an earworm is to find an activity that is so engrossing, you simply forget about the song and it slips out of your head. You just have to make sure you don’t remember it again.
Otherwise, you have two options. The first is to simply confront the earworm. Embrace it, or what scientists refer to as the “saturate and seek closure” method. Listen to the song all the way through at full volume, preferably while singing along.
The second option is to find a “cure” song. This is a song that will get rid of the earworm, but ideally isn’t so catchy that it simply takes its place, making this option something of a balancing act. One British study found that the most popular “cure” song was the national anthem, so there’s a start.