At first it may be pleasant, then it turns to bothersome, then it's outright aggravating! What's that? The song that's been stuck in your head for hours or sometimes days on end. Sometimes you'll wake up in the morning, and lo and behold, there's that tune again rattling around your brain.
They're called earworms and some researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, are studying them. Among other things, they are trying to establish why these tunes get engraved in our brain.
They have a series of questions for which they wish to find answers:
What features do typical earworm music tunes have in common? - Are some tunes naturally more 'sticky'?
What do people who frequently experience earworms have in common? - Are musicians or music lovers more vulnerable?
What about people with different personality types?
What causes earworms? - Are some situations more 'high risk'? Can earworms have a purpose?
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What cures earworms?
Here is their definition of an earworm:
"The term earworm originally comes from a translation of the German word 'Ohrwurm'. It refers to the experience of having a tune or a part of a tune stuck in your head. Often a person experiencing an earworm has no idea why a tune has popped into their head and has little control over how long it continues. Earworms are a really common phenomenon: A recent poll suggested over 90% of the population experience them at least once a week, so it seems like having the odd earworm is perfectly normal. But 15% of people classified their earworms as "disturbing" and in a different study one third of the people described their earworms as "unpleasant". This means that although earworms are essentially harmless they can get in the way of what you are trying to do and can stop you from thinking straight."
Can They Be Messages from Your Subsconscious?
Sometimes when a song just pops up in your head "on its own" it's a message from your subconscious. As in, "raindrops keep falling on my head" when it's raining outside... or, "I'm leaving on a jet plane" when you've just had an agument with your boyfriend, or "slow down you're going too fast" when...
But earwoms are something different. They're usually a song you heard on the radio, or a store, or an elevator, or you heard someone whistle it, and the thing won't leave. Hours later, and sometimes days later, it's still in your head.
My suggestion would be to first check into the lyrics of the song and make sure there isn't a message there. If you don't consciously know the lyrics, be assured that your subconscious does. Our brain, which we generally use at only 10% of its capacity, remembers every single thing it has ever heard or seen. I suppose that's what part of that "unused" 90% is doing - storing all that data.
If you're not able to consciously access the lyrics, there's some websites (and apps) that allow you to sing the tune, and they will identify the title of the song and even provide examples and lyrics and info on artists, concert dates, etc. How cool is that? (The free app I have on my Android that does this is SoundHound. It even keeps a history of the songs I've looked up.)
Anyway, back to earworms...
What's That Tune? and Why Is It There?
Research suggests that there may be psychological reasons why some songs are more likely to stick, including memory triggers, emotional states and even stress.
Listen to the interview (below) on NPR with psychologist Vicki Williamson about earworms and read about the project (with links to participate in the study at Goldsmiths, University of London).
About The Author
Marie T. Russell is the founder of InnerSelf Magazine (founded 1985). She also produced and hosted a weekly South Florida radio broadcast, Inner Power, from 1992-1995 which focused on themes such as self-esteem, personal growth, and well-being. Her articles focus on transformation and reconnecting with our own inner source of joy and creativity.
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