Earworms: Investigating the music in our heads

Have you ever had a song stuck in your head? A melody or lyric, which appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and then refused to leave. Involuntary Musical Imagery or Earworms as they are more commonly referred to, was the subject of a one-day symposium I recently attended at Goldsmiths University of London.

Earworm Hello

The day brought together neuroscientists and cognitive specialists from around the world to discuss the outcome of three years of research and whilst the level of science got pretty intense at times, the Music, Mind and Brain group at Goldsmiths were kind enough to make the day accessible to anyone with an interest in the subject.

My personal agenda was to find new ways of helping write “sticky music” that elicits a pleasant experience and to help design feedback-action sounds for apps and devices that don’t tire or become annoying on heavy rotation. If you are driven to distraction by an annoying startup sound on an electronic device, or you’ve ever put an “unknown item in the bagging area” you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Earworm Tune Stuck In Your Head

Whilst inane pop is the sledgehammer route to a catchy but annoying song (see: The Birdy Song, Gummy Bear anything by Crazy Frog) …there are more subtle techniques to help successfully embed a melody.

With thanks to Prof. Jan Hemming for these two musical examples:

Simple repetition of a theme or hook can be made more sophisticated with variations of phrasing and tempo – listen to the Hallelujah refrain from Handel’s Messiah Pt.2

Or transposition – listen to how the intial der der der derrrr  Beethoven’s Symphony No.5

If you’re writing a pop track then narrowing the pitch range of melody notes and/or following a more conventional note sequence, will also make something more singable and hence memorable. One visiting academic had set up an online experiment to find the catchiest pop songs ever (4). According to the 2 million people who have taken part so far, the top of the pile is Wannabe by The Spice Girls. I find it hard to disagree with that finding – you can have a go yourself here:

Earworm Charlie Brown

But where do these tunes pop up from? There’s good evidence that repeated and recent listening will increase incidences of Involuntary Musical Imagery. Triggers can prime people to imagine certain types of music for example Christmas music in December, although the mood of a person isn’t necessarily linked to the mood of music they imagine. People can find themselves imagining sad songs during moments of happiness and not feeling any less happy as a result. I’m often going about my daily business, imagining something by Mr Oizo or Manu Kenton, whilst my mood and outward appearance remains calm. Most interesting to myself was the report that “musical” people had higher incidences of Earworms, with many people hearing melodies they’ve never heard before, literally writing music in their heads (2)(3). Musicality or musical sophistication isn’t measured purely on ability to play an instrument or understand theory but on how interested and immersed you are. A dedicated funk and soul record collector is just as likely to have an internal library of references as a gigging session musician or composer.

You can take the Goldsmith’s test of musical sophistication yourself – it’s a bit fiddly but you can download the materials here:

Earworm Coma Chameleon

Earworms are generally reported as a pleasant experience in the majority. They can help you focus on and complete tasks more efficiently (literally – whistle while you work) but can be a source of torment for others. Should you find yourself in the latter situation and in need of urgent earworm removal: the following techniques were reported with varying degrees of success (5)(6): chewing gum, counting backwards from a large number in units of 3, playing with the tune and/or developing the loop into something new, swapping it for another song which you can forget more easily, drowning it out with white noise or distracting yourself with an alternate task.

Massive thanks to all at the Goldsmiths Music, Mind and Brain group for hosting an informative yet accessible symposium and the lecturers below whose 3 years of research I have attempted to digest.

Mike Bamford, String and Tins

With thanks to: Prof. Lauren Stewart, Dr. Freya Bailes, Prof. Dr. Jan Hemming (1), Prof. Lia Kvavilashvili (2), Dr. Philip Beaman(5), Dr. Ashley Burgoyne (4), Dr. Lassi Liikkanen, Georgia Floridou, Dr. Nicolas Farrugia, Kelly Jakubowski (3), Dr. Victoria Williamson(6), Dr. Renee Timmers, Ioanna Fillippidi, Prof. Andrea Halpern.