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Biology 103
2003 Third Paper
On Serendip

Earworm: The Song That Won't Leave Your Head

Diana Medina

I woke up and I was mortified. It was the first thing in my mind when I opened my eyes and I just could not believe this silly little thing had become as involuntary as breathing. I tried another song, but it would come back without me realizing it. I walked to work and it came with me, I sat in class and it spoke louder that my professor's voice, I even took a nap and it kept me awake. I had a stupid song stuck in my head and it wouldn't go away.

What is it that happens in the brain that causes this annoyance to go on for days? And why does it remain in the head even when it's driving us so crazy that we want to scream in pain? According to research done by Professor James Kellaris at the University of Cincinnati, (1) getting songs stuck in our heads happens to most if not all of us. His theory shows that certain songs create a sort of "cognitive itch" - the mental equivalent of an itchy back. So, the only way to 'scratch' a cognitive itch is to rehearse the responsible tune mentally. The process may start involuntarily, as the brain detects an incongruity or something "exceptional" in the musical stimulus. The ensuing mental repetition may exacerbate the "itch," such that the mental rehearsal becomes largely involuntary, and the individual feels trapped in a cycle from which they seem unable to escape.

But why does this happen? Apparently, repetition, musical simplicity and incongruity are partly responsible for the annoyance. (2) A repeated phrase, motif or sequence might be suggestive of the very act of repetition itself, such that the brain echoes the pattern automatically as the musical information is processed. Still, simpler songs appear more likely to make your brain itch, - like Barnny's "I love you, you love me" tune - but at the same time a song that does something unexpected can cause the brain to latch on because of whatever unconscious cognitive incident occurred at that very moment. These traits of simplicity, repetition and circular composition1 are potent because we don't remember songs as one complete image, like a picture, but as temporal sequences that unfold in our brains. (3) In other words, we don't "see" an entire song in our head; instead, one image (or line in a song) triggers the subsequent one. If there is a circular quality to a song, then it ends up being a kind of neural network loop that just keeps cycling around and around.

However, it has also been argued that there is a tendency to remember an incomplete task rather than a completed one. So when a chorus keeps looping around in our mind, preventing us from remembering how a song ends, we experience the Zeigarnik effect2 - where we just want to complete the song. The brain has a natural tendency to focus on incomplete problems, such as getting through the song and, in a sense, obsessing about it. This is not done consciously. It's simply a kind of an unconscious need to complete a problem.

The typical episode lasts from a few hours (in 55% of people) to a full day (23%). A quarter was haunted by songs or jingles for several days (17%) or longer than a week (5%). (4) Interesting facts show that women report more irritation and frustration as a result of earworms - the term used for "a song stuck in your head" - as well as people who are constantly exposed to music. More so, there may be a connection between earworms and a person's level of neurosis as this may cause them to react quicker to the onset of an earworm. (6) Usually, neurotic individuals experiencing an earworm are easily exacerbated by wondering how long it's going to last, or simply by predisposing themselves to the idea that it is going to remain there for a while. Seventeen percent and less of the individuals who were part of Kellaris's sample group expressed that the earworm lasted three days or more days and 100% of these individuals presented signs of mild to severe neurosis. (1)This lead the investigation to conclude that being susceptible to neurosis increases the chances of being "annoyed" for longer periods of time.

So how do we keep earworm from wriggling through our head? Research shows that there really isn't a proven psychological tonic, but deconstruction is a strategy that is often recommended by cognitive psychologists. (3) The trick is to ask ourselves, "why is this song in my brain? What do I hate or like about it? And what the heck do those lyrics mean? Apparently, the reason it's in your heads is because we've got this kind of cognitive itch that leads the to brain to conclude that something is not quite complete, so we try to complete the task in some other way, namely, by repetition. So, it would seem reasonable to think that if we can't remember the words or the complete song, we try to analyze it or think about the song in another way so that we have a sense of accomplishment - that we've actually resolved some question about the song. (4) When the brain thinks, "ok, well, I've done my job," it creates a sense of closure which may free us from the affliction, allowing our brains to move on to more important matters.

The research is of particular interest to both the pop industry looking to boost sales and to advertisers, who often use jingles to get their brand name stuck in the head of listeners. For both advertising purposes and pop music purposes, it's of great value to know that once and something heard is not forgotten quickly or easily. This is why TV or radio commercials create jingles that are "catchy" phrases that are "fun" to sing along with when listened to. (1) These are often short and concise, allowing the consumer to associate the tune to a particular brand or product. For advertisers, being able to get to invade consumer's mind in such a way that they will pick one brand over another based on the silly jingle is exactly what makes the big difference. Say, buying "Mr. Clean, Mr. Clean," as opposed to any other disinfectant or "cha cha cha, Charmin" instead of Kleenex tissue paper. As for songs, the issue is a little more random. Though, it is true that one is bound to repeat Britney's "ooh baby, baby. I did it again" as opposed to a less popular song, the chances of being "infected" are the same. Equally, the conscious or unconscious significance a particular song has for an individual could possible lead for the involuntary repetition of a song's segment. This is why, Kellaris recommends analyzing the relation a song could have with our personal lives.

Just a few weeks back, I came across Rockwell Church's new hit, "Chemical." I liked the song so much that I played it on repeat over and over again, singing it every time it started to play. I was aware of the fact that the song did hit some emotional nerves, which is why I wanted to hear it repeatedly. The song was kind of pseudo-therapy that allowed me to cope with whatever I was feeling at the moment. However, after the twentieth time, I got so tired of it, I turned it off, but unfortunately, it was now permanently lodged in my brain - I was just unable to shake it off.

As I began to research this paper, I became aware that I was part of the 17-5 percent of the population who experiences severe cases of cognitive itch - not only with songs, but with poems, sentences, images. Somehow, these just get wedged in my brain, without my realizing and just stay there for days on end. Nonetheless, I must admit that the Rockwell Church earworm was completely my fault and I was so fascinated by it, that I even went on to write my second web paper on it - the effects of chemicals in interpersonal attractions. So much for an obsessive mind! When I asked Pofessor of Biology, Paul Grobstein, what the heck was happening in my brain, he gave me a similar explanation to this paper, and then went on to candidly say, "you're just neurotic." That too was true.
I have unsuccessfully completed my 5 page assignment without several short-lived earworms. I do listen to music a lot when typing, but I must admit I was predisposed to thinking I was inevitably going to suffer from brain itch while I completed my essay. Nevertheless, I was forced to think of some tunes to illustrate the evils of earworms and the different types there were. So, in payback for what has already been lodged in my head for the sake of this paper, I shall pass it on to you. Sing along...
"This is the song that doesn't end. And it goes on and on my friends. Some people, started singing it not knowing what it was, and they continued singing it forever just because this is the song that doesn't end and it goes on and on my friends, some people started singing not knowing what it was and they continued singing it forever just because this is the song that doesn't end and it goes on and on my friends, some people started singing not knowing what it was, and they continued singing it forever just because this is..."

-Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse, Hush Puppy, and Shari.

1 Which reminds me of Lamb Chop's diabolic tune to the "never ending song."
2 Named after Russian psychologist Blum Zeigarnik who came up with the theory in 1927.



1) Brain Itch Keeps Song in the Head, Wednesday, 29 October 2003

2)Why Songs Get Stuck in Our Heads All Day?

3) Kevlar, Cognitive Itch, 2003

4) Gigson Stacey, No Cure For Songs Stuck in Your Head

5) Ask us at U of T

6) The Wrong Song Stuck In Your Head

7) Annoying Songs Stuck in the Head

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