The Earworm: An Odd Effect of Music on the Brain

Jan 31, 2024

It happens to all of us from time to time. You’re going about your daily business, and you find yourself humming a tune. And before you know it, that tune becomes a whole band in your head, complete with lead and backup singers, and before you know it, you’re belting out the lyrics to the whole room! The earworm has arrived!

Now, it’ll play over and over inside your head, seemingly without reason and without end. What the heck is going on? How, and why, did this happen? Will it ever stop?!

As you probably already know, even though earworms can feel uncontrollable, they’re not really something you need to be concerned about. In fact, research suggests that they’re extremely common, and at least nine out of ten people have had one last for an hour or longer. A few unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on the song) have even reported it lasting for a year or more!

But why does this happen in the first place?

What is an Earworm?

The term “earworm” was coined in Germany more than 100 years ago (called öhrwurm, in its native language) to describe that feeling of having a song stuck in your head. It has since collected other names, such as “stuck tune syndrome” and “musical imagery repetition.” But the (somewhat creepy) image of a worm scrawling deep into the ear has caught on. But how does it happen?

Remembering the riff or a few lines of lyrics from your favourite song can make you smile. But the experience of an earworm is often different.

“Usually an earworm is a fragment of music, usually three or four bars, which go round and round and round,” says Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and author who studies music and the brain. “This is a special form of involuntary musical imagery which is out of control and can become quite unpleasant and intrusive.”

While creating an earworm is something of an art form for musicians, getting rid of one is another matter entirely. Those afflicted try all sorts of methods to get rid of the irritation. Some try thinking of another song to erase it. Others sing the whole thing in its entirety. Still, others try doing something external that requires all of their attention and concentration. However, at least one study suggests that the harder you fight to make it go away, the longer an earworm can last!

Where Do They Come From?

One of the most common sources for an earworm is, of course, TV and radio ads. Advertisers go out of their way to create jingles they hope become earworms! If they succeed, you’re more likely to remember their company, product, or service. The same can be said for TV shows, movies, and video games. A catchy and recognizable theme song (like, say, “The Siiiiim-psooons…”) has you humming along right away. And keeps you thinking about the show or movie long after it’s over.

The Science Behind The Earworm

According to researchers at Dartmouth College, the part of the brain where earworms do their performing is called the auditory cortex. Here, most of the processing of sounds, including music, is done. It’s also where the memories of music are stored. This was discovered when researchers performed a brain scan experiment to look into “imagined music.” In short, they played part of a familiar song and then interrupted it to see how the brain reacted. Interestingly, the people being tested immediately filled in the missing parts.

According to lead researcher David Kraemer, “We found that the auditory cortex that is active when you’re actually listening to a song was reactivated when you just imagine hearing the song.” In other words, your auditory cortex doesn’t care if it’s hearing music for the first time, or if you’re imagining it later; it’s all the same to the brain.

Some speculate that the earworm phenomenon may be a recent effect. A little more than 100 years ago you would have to go to a party, concert hall, or worship space to hear music. There was no Spotify, no radio, no portable music of any kind. But today, music is everywhere. It’s in your car, where you shop, and at your fingertips. And earworms have more access to your auditory cortex than ever before.

But Why Does it Happen?

Unfortunately, right now no one understands why imagined songs can sometimes get stuck in your head. But the subject is a fascinating one for brain scientists, and they continue to study it. What they have discovered is that our memory for music is amazingly powerful. What’s more, we can use that power to remember facts and details more easily – we just need to set that information to music! This is something we’ve all experienced at some point. The best example may simply be that the ABCs are sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and have helped countless children learn their letters. It’s insights like these that lead researchers to wonder if studying how earworms work could reveal how our mind creates and retains other kinds of memories.

Want to learn to create your own earworms? Maybe you just want to learn to play them yourself! Either way, we’ve got classes and lessons that can help! Check out our songwriting lessons, as well as all our other programs, and sign up today!