An earworm, sometimes known as a brainworm, sticky music, stuck song syndrome, or Involuntary Musical Imagery (IMI) is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person's mind after it is no longer playing. Phrases used to describe an earworm include "musical imagery repetition", "involuntary musical imagery", "cognitive itch" and "stuck song syndrome".
The word earworm is a calque from the German Ohrwurm, which has had this sense since the mid-20th century. The earliest known English usage is in Desmond Bagley's 1978 novel Flyaway, where the author points out the German origin of his coinage.
Researchers who have studied and written about the phenomenon include Theodor Reik, Sean Bennett, Oliver Sacks, Daniel Levitin, James Kellaris, Philip Beaman, Vicky Williamson, and, in a more theoretical perspective, Peter Szendy. The phenomenon should not be confused with palinacousis, a rare medical condition caused by damage to the temporal lobe of the brain that results in auditory hallucinations.
Incidence and causes
Researcher Vicky Williamson at Goldsmiths, University of London, found in an uncontrolled study that earworms correlated with music exposure, but could also be triggered by experiences that trigger the memory of a song (involuntary memory) such as seeing a word that reminds one of the song, hearing a few notes from the song, or feeling an emotion one associates with the song. The list of songs collected in the study showed no particular pattern, other than popularity.
According to research by James Kellaris, 98% of individuals experience earworms. Women and men experience the phenomenon equally often, but earworms tend to last longer for women and irritate them more. Kellaris produced statistics suggesting that songs with lyrics may account for 73.7% of earworms, whereas instrumental music may cause only 7.7%.
In 2010, published data in the British Journal of Psychology directly addressed the subject, and its results support earlier claims that earworms are usually 15 to 30 seconds in length and are more common in those with an interest in music.
Scientists at Western Washington University found that engaging working memory in moderately difficult tasks (such as anagrams, Sudoku puzzles, or reading a novel) was an effective way of stopping earworms and of reducing their recurrence. Another publication points out that melodic music has a tendency to demonstrate repeating rhythm which may lead to endless repetition, unless a climax can be achieved to break the cycle.
Research reported in 2015 by the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading demonstrated that chewing gum could help by similarly blocking the sub-vocal rehearsal component of auditory short-term or "working" memory associated with generating and manipulating auditory and musical images.
Jean Harris, who murdered Herman Tarnower, was obsessed with the song "Put the Blame on Mame", which she first heard in the film Gilda. She would recall this regularly for over 33 years and could hold a conversation while playing it in her mind.
In popular culture
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In 1943 Henry Kuttner published the short story "Nothing but Gingerbread Left" about a song engineered to damage the Nazi war effort, culminating in Adolf Hitler being unable to continue a speech.
In Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 science fiction short story "The Ultimate Melody", a scientist, Gilbert Lister, develops the ultimate melody – one that so compels the brain that its listener becomes completely and forever enraptured by it. As the storyteller, Harry Purvis, explains, Lister theorized that a great melody "made its impression on the mind because it fitted in with the fundamental electrical rhythms going on in the brain." Lister attempts to abstract from the hit tunes of the day to a melody that fits in so well with the electrical rhythms that it dominates them completely. He succeeds and is found in a catatonic state from which he never awakens.
In Fritz Leiber's Hugo Award-nominated short story "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee" (1959), the title describes a rhythmic drumbeat so powerful that it rapidly spreads to all areas of human culture, until a counter-rhythm is developed that acts as an antidote.
In Joe Simpson's 1988 book Touching the Void, he talks about not being able to get the tune "Brown Girl in the Ring" by Boney M out of his head. The book tells of his survival, against the odds, after a mountaineering accident in the remote Siula Grande region of South America. Alone, badly injured, and in a semi-delirious state, he is confused as to whether he is imagining the music or really hearing it.
In the Dexter's Laboratory episode titled "Head Band", a contagious group of viruses force their host to sing what they are saying to the same "boy band" tune. The only way to be cured of the Boy Band Virus is for the viruses to break up and start their own solo careers.
E. B. White's 1933 satirical short story "The Supremacy of Uruguay" (reprinted in Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow) relates a fictional episode in the history of Uruguay where a powerful earworm is discovered in a popular American song. The Uruguayan military builds a squadron of pilotless aircraft armed with phonographs playing a highly amplified recording of the earworm, and conquers the entire world by reducing the citizens of all nations to mindless insanity. "[T]he peoples were hopelessly mad, ravaged by an ineradicable noise ... No one could hear anything except the noise in his own head."
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Of the 1,000 respondents, the kind of music respondents said they got stuck on most recently were songs with lyrics for 73.7 percent, jingles or ads for 18.6 percent and an instrumental tune for 7.7 percent.
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- Divya Singhal (December 8, 2011), Why this Kolaveri Di: Maddening Phenomenon of Earworm, SSRN 1969781