So THAT’S Why Songs Get Stuck In Your Head

There's a reason you've become a victim of Kylie's Padamic.
YouTube/Kylie Minogue

As a TikTok obsessive, I am no stranger to getting songs stuck in my head. In fact, at any given moment in time, I’ll have some trending sound looping in my mind. Currently, it’s Vampire by Olivia Rodrigo but usually, it’s a sped up version of a once popular song.

While this isn’t a big deal and doesn’t impact my day to day life other than me wishing my brain clung to better songs, it’s still so strange to be carrying around a song in my mind without anything actually playing.

Why does this even happen? Why does the song get lodged in your mind? Why can’t we escape it?

What causes earworms?

Well, let’s start with the technical name which is ‘involuntary musical imagery’ or IMNI – scientists have named it this because, well, these earworms form in our minds involuntarily.

So, research has shown that while we can’t currently pin down on why we get earworms, we can find a commonality with the earworms that we get. It turns out that earworms tend to occur in a response to triggers such as boredom, recency, and familiarity.

Speaking to Wired, Emery Schubert, a researcher and professor at the University of New South Wales, said: “Our brain is made up of a massive complex network of neurons that store information, and when the mind is free to wander, it may unwittingly land on a song that has been encoded through recency and repetition’ adding, ’In fact, composers and artists who write songs intentionally build repetition into their music to boost the odds of creating an earworm.”

This correlates with another study that found that the most popular earworms tend to follow the same ‘melodic contours’ that are often found in Western pop music. Think, for example, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and contrast it with another song noted in the study – Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger. They both follow similar patterns and it seems that these patterns get lodged in our brains.

While anybody can get earworms, studies have shown that people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are more likely to get them and not experience them as background noise, the way others do, but instead as a debilitating repetition as their intrusive nature mimics the behaviour of the intrusive thoughts that people with OCD experience.

So, how do we get rid of earworms?

Sorry to be the bearers of bad news but at the moment, there isn’t a definite way to get that song out of your head. However, Harvard Health Publishing has some ideas. First of all, try to not push back against the song as it’s only going to get worse and make your brain play it over and over again (great…!).

Instead, try listening to a different song for distraction. Harvard Health Publishing noted that some successful songs for this were God Save The Queen by Thomas Arne and Karma Chameleon by Culture Club.

You could also try listening to the song in full as it’s commonly believed that earworms occur when you only remember part of the song and hearing the whole track can help with resolving this.

Finally, chewing gum can help interfere with the song in your head.

If you are struggling with earworms and finding them overwhelming, speak to your GP for support and treatment.