Music that is simple, repetitive, and easy to sing (or hum) is most likely to get stuck. Think Miley Cyrus’ “Flowers,” and Queen’s classic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and the title-says-it-all track “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” by Kylie Minogue. Even the Rocky theme song can fight its way in. Nursery rhymes and kid-friendly tunes are also strong earworm contenders. They’re composed to be catchy, with an ear toward repetition, and as a result, memorization. If the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” crawls into your head, now you know why.
Who’s at Risk
It turns out that certain emotional states, such as when we’re tired or overworked, can trigger earworms. (In a Goldilocks-like quandary, you may be more vulnerable if you’re too stressed or not stressed enough—in other words, bored.) Maybe that’s why I frequently wrestled with earworms when my three sons were young. The combination of simple music and sleep deprivation created a fertile breeding ground for the pesky tunes to take hold.
“We get trapped in ironic processes. Not to think about something requires remembering what it is we’re not supposed to think about,” says James Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati, also known as Dr. Earworm. “Mind experiment: Try very hard not to think about ‘Who Let the Dogs Out.’” Good luck with that!
At their core, earworms are a form of rumination, and research suggests that people who suffer from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are more prone to earworms. “Their brains are wired to reflect and reflect and reflect,” Arthur says. There’s even a small subset of the population that suffers from earworms on steroids. Dubbed intrusive musical imagery, or IMI, these musical obsessions can last for months, even years, wreaking havoc on the person’s life and work.
(Note: If you’re wrestling with an earworm for more than 24 hours, and it’s interfering with your work or your life, talk to your health care provider. There are other, rare conditions that may be at play here, and they are treatable!)
How to Set Your Earworm Free
Most people aren’t too bothered by the occasional catchy tune playing on a loop in their heads. But sadly, earworms don’t discriminate between tunes you like and ones you despise. They don’t care if you’re happy and you know it (though they might care if you clap your hands as a disruption tactic).
If an earworm has a hold on you, scientists believe the following strategies may help obliterate it:
- Complete the song. When you only know one part of the song, that’s the bit that gets stuck. Once you listen to the whole song all the way through, your brain gets the message that it’s complete, so there’s no need for it to repeat. Don’t have time to play the song in its entirety? Cue the applause. That’s a trick Arthur uses to signal to her mind that the song is over. “I imagine that I’m at a concert, and I hear the audience clapping and cheering in my mind,” she says.
- Distract yourself. It turns out watching memes when you’re trying to ditch an earworm is an expert-approved strategy. Distraction, or coming up with a competing task, sound, or image—something that engages your mind—can help get rid of an INMI. “Even chewing gum can disrupt the phonological loop necessary for imagining through the song,” says Elizabeth Margulis, a professor at Princeton University and director of its music cognition lab.
- Diversify your playlist. If you create a playlist made up of songs with varying tempos and beats, your mind may be less likely to catch on a particular tune. “When you expand your horizons and learn about different kinds of music, there’s a larger repertoire for your mind to draw upon,” Schubert says. In a pinch? Tune into the earworm eraser, a 42-second track that’s designed to disrupt the neural patterns that latch onto a catchy song. “There’s no rhythm, no melody, and it just takes up space in your phonological loop,” Arthur says.
- Mix up the lyrics. The AI tool ChatGPT gets a lot of flak for potentially putting writers out of business, but if you’ve got an earworm, it could provide an antidote. Try this: Tell ChatGPT, “You are Weird Al Yankovic, make these lyrics funny and about Star Wars.” Want an AI-free solution? Try strategically replacing words in the song—so swap out the word “Caroline” in “Sweet Caroline” with another three-syllable word. Let’s say, “establish.” Now try singing it.
While you may be tempted to try to suppress earworms, Kellaris cautions against it. They’re like a cognitive itch. Scratching them (or in this case, fixating on how to annihilate them) will only make the episode last longer. Instead, when a pesky earworm does get trapped in your head, try to remember that “you can’t always get what you want … but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”