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Earworms: Songs that get stuck in playback mode

Remember that episode of “Seinfeld” in which George arrives at Jerry’s house singing “Master of the House” from “Les Miserables”?
“I can’t get it out of my head,” he complains to Jerry. “I just keep singing it over and over. It just comes out.

Remember that episode of “Seinfeld” in which George arrives at Jerry’s house singing “Master of the House” from “Les Miserables”?

“I can’t get it out of my head,” he complains to Jerry. “I just keep singing it over and over. It just comes out. I have no control over it. I’m singing it on elevators, buses. I sing it in front of clients. It’s taking over my life.”

Ever happen to you?

Probably, although a bit less dramatically. Surveys have found that at least 97 percent of us report being susceptible to such involuntary musical imagery, which researchers have dubbed earworms, brainworms, or “stuck song syndrome.”

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Even the great neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has experienced them. In his book “Musicophilia” he recounts how he spent a sleepless night replaying hundreds of times in his mind a single 15-second piano riff from Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto.

The music got “trapped in a sort of loop,” he writes, “a tight neural circuit from which it could not escape.”

Not much research
Although many scientists, including Sacks, have speculated on the sources and characteristics of earworms, very little research has been done on them.

Two small studies recently published in the British Journal of Psychology are among the first to scientifically examine the earworm phenomenon. These studies weren’t able to answer the neurological puzzle about why songs get stuck in our minds, but they did come up with some interesting findings — findings that contradict some of the things previously believed about these “can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head” tunes, including who is most likely to experience them.

For one of the studies, 103 people at a British railroad station and city park were interviewed about earworms on an August day in 2006. The participants included 64 men and 39 women, aged 15 to 57.

For the other study, 12 recruits (9 women and 3 men) were asked to keep detailed diaries of earworm episodes for four weeks.

What the studies found
Most of the earworm-causing songs that people named came from pop music — yes, songs from pop icons like Justin Timberlake, but also those from classic rock bands like Pink Floyd and Guns & Roses.

TV-show themes and advertising jingles were also listed, but so was one jazz instrumental song. No tunes dominated the lists. In fact, only 10 of the 199 different songs that came up in the diary study were reported by more than one person.

Most people said their earworms usually consisted of only a portion of a song — its chorus, “end bit,” or a single line.

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Unlike some earlier speculation, women were not more likely to experience earworms. Nor were musicians. The study did find, however, that people who consider music an important part of their lives tended to express more annoyance with these  “sticky” tunes and to report longer and more stubborn earworm episodes.

But the studies also found that earworm episodes were unlikely to occur more than once a day, and most had completely gone away by the following day. Furthermore, unlike “Seinfeld”’s George Costanza, two-thirds of the studies’ participants did not deem the experiences unpleasant.

These are all signs, say the studies’ authors, that earworms are probably not linked with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Getting it out of your head
How do you get rid of an earworm?  Well, active attempts are less successful than passive acceptance, say the studies’ authors. They point to “Wegner’s theory of ironic mental control” — the idea that the more you intentionally try to stop thinking of something, the greater the likelihood you will think of it.

In the questionnaire study, almost half of respondents said they simply listened to or thought of a different song to get rid of unwanted earworms. (Two percent said they drank alcohol.)

In the “Seinfeld” episode, George apparently exorcises his “Les Miserables” earworm by having another character “catch” the song from him. Watch out, then. Listed below are some of the most common earworm-triggering songs reported by college students in a survey taken a few years ago.

  • “It’s a Small World After All”
  • “Theme song from “Gilligan’s Island”
  • “The Macarena”
  • “We Will Rock You”
  • Theme music from “Mission Impossible”
  • “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

Any songs you’d add to the list?