Virtually everyone has been tortured by an earworm – one of those songs that sneaks into your head and stays there. But why? How? Most importantly – how can you get that #$&*^% song out of your head?!
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*OK. When’s the last time you had a song stuck in your head? We’ve all been there.
These snatches of song infiltrating your thoughts are known as earworms, and according to University of Cincinnati’s James Kellaris, 99% of us have fallen prey to them at one time or another.
They're not parasites that crawl into your ear and lay “music eggs” in your brain. But they do get lodged in your head and cause a sort of "cognitive itch" -- a need for the brain to fill in the gaps in a song's rhythm.
When we listen to a song, it triggers a part of the brain called the auditory cortex. Researchers at Dartmouth University found that when they played part of a familiar song to research subjects, the participants' auditory cortex automatically filled in the rest -- in other words, their brains kept "singing" after the song had ended.
The only way to "scratch" brain itch is to repeat the song in your mind. Unfortunately, this is like a mosquito bite; the more you scratch, the more you itch.
Researchers also aren't sure why some songs are more earwormy than others, but we know a little about the type of song most likely to worm its way into your head.
These songs often have a simple, upbeat melody; catchy, repetitive lyrics; and a surprise such as an extra beat or unusual rhythm -- the same factors that made the songs or jingles popular in the first place (like the Chili's, "I want my baby back baby back baby back ribs" jingle).
Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet way to get songs out of your head once they're stuck. They can stick in your brain for anywhere from a few minutes to several days.
Most earworms eventually "crawl out" on their own, but if a song is nagging you to the brink of insanity, here are a few things to try: Sing another song, listen to a different one or play another melody on an instrument. Listen to the song all the way through (this works for some people). Or share the song with a friend. Though they might not be your friend after you infect them.
And no need to worry if you keep getting songs stuck in your head -- it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you.
However, if you actually hear music that isn't there (instead of just thinking about it), see a psychologist or other mental health professional. It could be a sign of endomusia -- an obsessive condition in which people hear music that isn't really playing.