You just woke up, walked to the bathroom, and started brushing your teeth in front of the mirror as usual. Then all of a sudden, the main musical theme of the Simpsons came flying into your head, and now you know it will be stuck there all day. Oh no!
What are Earworms?
In 1979 German psychiatrist Cornelius Eckert came up with the term der Ohrwurm, “earworm” in English, to define the instance when a piece of music gets stuck in your head. Later on, scientists gave earworms a more academic name, Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI), but the earworm moniker stuck.
Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) refers to a short piece of music (usually 20 seconds) that plays in a loop in our heads, devoid of any conscious effort; this can last hours, days, or in more severe cases, months. Earworms are a type of mind-wandering that can show up when our brain is bored, seeking distraction, idle, or sometimes when we are overwhelmed.
Many companies that offer products and services aim to create earworms as part of their advertising strategies. Therefore many of our earworms come from TV or radio commercials. What better way to catch potential customers’ attention than by sticking a tune in their heads to make sure they will be remembered?
How Does A Song Get Stuck in Your Head?
Earworms can form effortlessly, but may prove to be challenging to eliminate, as a recent study showed. 89.2% of a group formed by 12,519 Finish internet users said they experience earworms at least once a week. (1)
The auditory cortex is the region of our brains that earworms use as their Sunday Karaoke private room; this is the part of our brain that handles most sound processing, including music. Also, our music memories are stored in the auditory cortex. (2)
According to science, some songs are more likely to get stuck in our brains than others. Researchers have deduced that songs that become earworms hold their notes for a long-ish duration but with smaller pitch intervals, meaning that they are closer notes on a musical scale. Other characteristics of a potential earworm are that the song is predictable, with a simple melody and repetitive lyrics with some novelty elements such as an extra bit or an unusual rhythm. No wonder this is also the winning formula for most pop songs that get stuck in our heads.
Earworms and the Memory System
Most of the information our brain processes gets either forgotten or stored in our long-term memory. However, songs seem to remain in the short-term memory for an extended period. As earworms thrived in the auditory cortex, researchers found out that the song stuck in your head may be helping you in the process of strengthening memories.
A study where subjects were shown images together with a musical piece and asked about their recollection in different time frames revealed that the memory of the elements was more accurate while music was present.
Scientists hope that this finding can be a way to develop music-based interventions instead of pharmaceutical methods to help people suffering from dementia and other neurological disorders where short-term memory is significantly affected. (3)