Why You Can't Get That Song Out of Your Head

Why You Can't Get That Song Out of Your Head

By Alexis BlueUniversity Relations - Communications
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More than 90 percent of the population experiences "ear worms" - songs that get stuck in a person's head.
More than 90 percent of the population experiences "ear worms" - songs that get stuck in a person's head.
Dan Kruse
Dan Kruse
Andrew Lotto
Andrew Lotto
Don Traut
Don Traut

We've all experienced it – a song stuck in our heads on a continuous loop. Sometimes it's a favorite on mental repeat; other times it's a pesky tune we wish we could pause. What causes these so-called "ear worms" to stick around? UA researchers have been looking into the phenomenon with The Arizona Ear Worm Project, and will share their findings in a talk tonight at Playground Bar & Lounge.

In advance of the lecture, part of the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry's Show & Tell @ Playground series, Lo Que Pasa talked with researchers Dan Kruse, Andrew Lotto and Dan Traut about their work.

Kruse is a radio announcer for Arizona Public Media and has a degree in ethnomusicology from the UA. Lotto is an associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences and also psychology and linguistics. Traut is an associate professor of theory, Daveen Fox Endowed Chair for Music Studies, and head of the composition, musicology and theory area in the UA's Fred Fox School of Music.

The three of them will present at 6 tonight at Playground Bar & Lounge, 278 E. Congress St.

How common are ear worms, and how long do they usually last?

Kruse: Ear worms occur at least once a week in over 90 percent of the population; around 36 percent have them multiple times per week; around 23 percent of people report having ear worms multiple times each day. I've spoken to people whose ear worms last a minute or two, to maybe 30 minutes or so. One woman I spoke to – and this is the longest I've heard of – reported having a song by the Eagles in her mind pretty much continuously for two years. When I asked her if she knew why that happened, she replied: "I was going through a difficult time."

What do we know about what causes ear worms?  

Lotto: We know from various survey studies that ear worms can be elicited from a large number of sources, including recently hearing the song, or visiting a place where you had previously heard the song, or even hearing a word that is in the lyrics of the song. However, there is little known about the neural "causes" of the ear worms; that is, we are not sure what is going on in the brain when someone has an ear worm. 

The main reason that it is so hard to study ear worms in neuroscience is that it is difficult to reliably induce an ear worm. However, you can ask people to sing a known melody in their head. We refer to this as an example of "auditory imagery," which differs from ear worms because we define ear worms as being involuntary. What we learn from brain imaging studies of auditory imagery is that many of the same regions in the brain that are active when listening to a song are also active when you are imagining it. You also see this kind of overlap in studies of auditory hallucinations of voices speaking. So, it is likely that ear worms are due to activation of some of these same regions. That is, it is all in your head.

Are certain people more susceptible to ear worms than others?

Lotto: There is no clear evidence on what would make one person more susceptible than another, though there are some brain differences between people who are better at auditory imagery from those who are not. We have collected some data from a sample of individuals who reported the highest incidence of ear worms and they show higher performance on tests of melody, detecting a change in the pitch of a note in a melody, but lower performance on harmony, detecting whether one of the notes in this chord is out of tune. However, these results are very preliminary and would have to be replicated in a larger sample before we felt confident in them.

Are there certain types of songs that are more likely to get "stuck" than others? 

Traut: The simple answer is yes, there are. By far, the most common types of ear worms reported are those from pop songs with a clear "hook," a short memorable phrase that is repeated quite often during the song. Most of the time, the lyrics of the hook deliver the title of the song. For example, the main hook in "Let It Go," from the movie "Frozen," is when she sings "Let it go! Let it go! Can't hold it back anymore," just as the hook in Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" is the part where he sings "Billie Jean is not my lover." You know how the jingles used in commercials almost always mention the name of the product or business?  "Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener" or, more locally, try this: "Oh, oh, oh, O'Reilly … Auto Parts." It's the same concept.   

That said, the ear worm experience is a very personal one, so I hesitate to generalize too much. What we found is that most any kind of music – pop, country, classical, bluegrass – can get stuck in someone's mind for lots of different reasons. In other words, it doesn't always matter what the music is, because emotion and personal connection to the music is such a huge factor.  

What did you set out to learn with the Arizona Ear Worm Project?

Kruse: Our goals in the project were to: 1) develop a deeper understanding of what causes ear worms to "stick around" for long periods of time, as opposed to what causes them to begin, or how to get them to stop, and 2) to consider the viability of our particular interdisciplinary model, which combines music perception and cognition, music theory and the reported ear worm experience.

What will be the main focus of your talk at Playground?

Kruse: Our program will cover a variety of topics: how the study came into being, methodologies we utilized to conduct the research, a brief review of some of the preliminary results we've obtained in the study and giving audience members a chance to share their own stories of ear worms with us. This last part is always interesting, as so many people have this experience.

What was the last song you had stuck in your head?

Kruse: It's in my head right now: Phil Woods' saxophone solo in Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," one of my favorite sax solos. I happened to hear a story on NPR's "All Things Considered" about the recent death of Phil Woods, and they played a little snippet of that solo in the story, and it got me started with that song in my head. 

Lotto: "Hotline Bling," by Drake.

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