What is an Earworm?

“Earworms” are unwanted catchy tunes that repeat in your head.

An earworm, a sticky tune or involuntary musical imagery, is a catchy and repetitive piece of music or a tune that gets stuck in a person’s mind, playing on repeat. These melodic fragments can be challenging to shake off and may persist for hours, days, or even longer.

Earworms are a universal phenomenon experienced by people across cultures and age groups. I have lately been singing “Midnight Train to Georgia” lines in the afternoons at work. I just today realized that the Mark Arum Show[1] on WSB/95.5 radio ends with that song every day at noon.

Lou Simon, host of Sirius/XM’s The Diner[2] radio show has said that anytime he hears “Over Under Sideways Down” by the Yardbirds he is affected with an earworm. They have been studied from various perspectives, including psychology, neuroscience, and musicology, to understand better their occurrence, mechanisms, and impact on individuals.

The term “earworm” traces its origins back to the German word “Ohrwurm,” which has been used since the 19th century to describe this phenomenon. The concept of earworms has appeared in literature and various forms of media throughout history. However, it wasn’t until the late 20th and early 21st centuries that scientific research started to explore this intriguing aspect of human cognition and perception.

Several factors contribute to the occurrence of earworms, and researchers have identified various mechanisms underlying this phenomenon. Earworms are often associated with music that has a catchy and repetitive melody, simple rhythms, and memorable lyrics. These elements make the music easier to recall and replay in the mind.

One theory suggests that earworms may arise when a musical phrase or pattern creates an unfinished mental loop. The brain may attempt to complete the loop, leading to the repetition of the musical fragment. Emotional experiences linked to a particular song can increase the likelihood of it becoming an earworm.

Happy or emotional events may trigger the involuntary recall of associated tunes. Stress, fatigue, or cognitive overload can make individuals more susceptible to experiencing earworms. (No wonder I get them at my work!) Neuroimaging studies have shown that earworms activate regions of the brain involved in memory, emotion, and auditory processing, such as the auditory cortex, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex[3].

Some individuals are more prone to earworms than others, and factors like musical expertise and personality traits may play a role. Earworms can also spread through social interaction, as people sharing musical experiences may lead to common tunes getting stuck in multiple individuals’ minds. While earworms can be a harmless and amusing experience for some, they can become bothersome and distracting for others.

Persistent earworms may interfere with concentration, work performance, and sleep. Understanding the mechanisms behind earworms can be valuable in various contexts, such as advertising and marketing, where catchy jingles aim to create lasting impressions.

Experiencing persistent earworms can be bothersome, but there are several strategies individuals can try to alleviate their occurrence.
  • Engage with the Earworm: Sometimes, attempting to actively engage with the earworm, such as listening to the full song or mentally finishing the tune, can help the brain complete the loop and reduce its repetitive nature.
  • Distract Yourself: Engaging in activities that require mental focus can distract your mind from the earworm and potentially disrupt the loop. Reading a book, doing puzzles, or having a conversation with someone may help redirect your thoughts.
  • Listen to Different Music: Intentionally listening to other music or exposing yourself to different auditory stimuli can help replace the earworm with new mental imagery.
  • Chew Gum or Eat Something: Chewing gum or eating can engage the auditory and motor systems, potentially interrupting the earworm’s hold on your mind.
  • Perform a Mindful Task: Engaging in mindful activities, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises, may help reduce the persistence of earworms by calming the mind.
  • Change the Environment: Changing your physical environment can also help interrupt the loop. Move to a different room or step outside for a brief walk.
  • Sing or Hum a Different Song: Singing or humming a different tune can help overwrite the earworm with a new musical pattern.
  • Focus on Positive Thoughts: Concentrating on positive thoughts or memories can redirect your attention away from the earworm.
  • Limit Exposure to Triggering Music: Avoid repeatedly listening to the song that triggers the earworm, as this can reinforce the mental loop.
  • Share the Experience: Talking about your earworm experience with friends or family can help normalize the phenomenon and reduce any anxiety associated with it.

Remember that individual responses may vary, and it may take time for an earworm to naturally fade away. If earworms persist and significantly impact your daily life, it might be helpful to consult a healthcare professional or mental health expert for further assistance.

  1. The Mark Arum Show is on WSB radio (95.5) Atlanta, weekdays 9 AM-Noon. He’s one of the leaders for WSB Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB and on ‘Channel 2 Action News’, and he’s also one of Atlanta’s most plugged-in talk show hosts. Mark, Longoria, Debra Green, and Lil’ Sanjay make you smile while telling you what you need to know about Atlanta traffic, news, and weather. Enjoy Arum’s favorite ‘Millennial Match-Game’, as well as get up-to-date with WSB Traffic. Mark Arum’s local talk show is – a ‘Stress-Free Zone’. [Back]
  2. Every Sunday “The Diner” is open on Sirius/XM on Sixties Gold. Lou Simon hosts the show and plays the callers and emailers requests for three hours. Lou connects with all the listeners by telling his well-connected musical stories and showing his years of musical knowledge. Callers try to stump the DJ, tell their own stories, and explain why they want to hear certain songs. Talks go on about peoples Heaven and Hell songs, bab lyrics, perfect songs, album trifectas (best three albums by an artist in a row), and more…[Back]
  3. The brain regions involved in memory, emotion, and auditory processing play crucial roles in our cognitive and emotional experiences. The auditory cortex, located in the temporal lobe, is responsible for processing auditory information, allowing us to perceive and interpret sounds. The hippocampus, a structure deep within the temporal lobe, is essential for the formation and consolidation of long-term memories, playing a vital role in both spatial and declarative memory. Moreover, it is closely linked to emotion regulation and integrating emotional aspects of memories. Finally, the prefrontal cortex, located in the frontal lobe, is responsible for higher cognitive functions, including working memory, decision-making, and planning. It also interacts with the limbic system, including the hippocampus, to regulate emotional responses and connect them to appropriate memories and behaviors. Together, these brain regions create an intricate network facilitating memory, emotional processing, and auditory perception, significantly impacting our daily lives and interactions with the world. [Back]

Further Reading


Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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