November 19, 2015

Earworms And The Science Of ‘Involuntary Musical Images’


Ever had a song stuck in your head, playing on an endless loop? 

Scientists call them “involuntary musical images” or “earworms” and are studying them to explore the mysteries of memory and parts of the brain beyond our control. 
“The idea that we have full control over our thought processes is an illusion,” says psychologist Lauren Stewart, who founded the masters program in music, mind and brain at Goldsmiths, Univer­sity of London.

Earworms occur unpredictably. Much of what is known about them comes from surveys, diaries and experiments.

A Goldsmiths study published in the journal Memory and Cognition showed that the singing in our heads tends to be true to actual recordings.

Another Goldsmiths study in Consciousness and Cognition found that people who reported hearing earworms often had slightly different brain structures, with more grey matter associated with emotional processing.

The internal jukebox often starts playing during times of “low cognitive load”, such as while showering, getting dressed or doing chores. Stewart likens earworms to “sonic screen savers” that keep the mind entertained while it’s otherwise idling.

She and colleagues tested that theory by having volunteers listen to trailers from James Bond films and Pretty Woman, then giving them various tasks. The volunteers who sat idly were the likeliest to report hearing the music in their heads. “The more challenging the activity, they were less likely to hear the music,” Stewart says.

The inner DJ doesn’t cue up songs at random but songs tend to match people’s moods. If you’re energised and upbeat, an earworm is likely to be up-tempo, too.

Songs the brain fixates on are usually those it has been exposed to recently, which is why tunes on radio frequently top the earworm charts.

Words, images and other associations can summon up long-buried musical memories. Some people find the mere mention of a song can set an earworm playing unstoppably.

People who sing and listen to music more often tend to have more frequent earworms. And people with obsessive-compulsive tendencies are apt to have them more often. Most earworms actually aren’t unpleasant, yet even well-liked songs can become intrusive after repeated exposure.

Some earworms are fragments of a song that repeat like a broken record, but this could make an earworm even more entrenched.

One factor that makes some songs “sticky” may be repetition. “Repetition leads to familiarity which leads to anticipation, which is satisfied by hearing the song,” say John Seabrook, author of The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, about how producers pump pop songs full of aural hooks, designed to target the brain and leave it wanting more. A classic example: Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. “It’s like a sugar high,” he says. “It pumps you up and just as you start coming down it gives you another hook.”

Some scholars think earworms are highly individual. Out of more than 3800 survey responses, researchers at Goldsmiths say only 506 songs were cited as earworms by more than one person. Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance was mentioned by 33 respondents.

The researchers are comparing the melodic structure of 100 often-mentioned songs (Katy Perry’s California Girls, Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know) with 100 similarly popular songs that weren’t cited as earworms, to assess the differences.

Songs with earworm potential appear to share certain features: a repeating pattern of ups and downs in pitch, and an irregular musical interval. “It’s like your brain picks up on that unusual element and wants to hear it again,” says Kelly Jakubowski, one of the study authors.

By Melinda Beck

With many thanks to The Australia