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The Science Behind the Song Stuck in Your Head
October 10, 2001 8:24 PM   Subscribe

The Science Behind the Song Stuck in Your Head

Whoa, there is actually a scientific debate about this ("cognitive itch" theory, songs as "recurring dreams", the "cooties" method).

The last song that was in my head was Pete Rock's "What You Waiting For". [link courtesy Running Red Lights]
posted by youthbc1 (48 comments total)

 
Well you came and you gave without takin'
But I sent you away, oh Mandy
Well, you kissed me and stopped me from shakin'
And I need you today, oh Mandy
posted by websavvy at 8:37 PM on October 10, 2001


I'd certainly like to get through one godforsaken day without the hell that is the Banana Splits theme song in my evil little head.

"One banana, two banana, three banana, four, five bananas make a bunch and so do many more.... tra la la, la la la la laaa, tra [fucking kill me please] la la , laaa laaa laaa.......
posted by dong_resin at 8:38 PM on October 10, 2001


Here's another, more insightful article on the same topic.
posted by amb at 8:43 PM on October 10, 2001


It was an interesting article, however:

A University of Cincinnati professor hopes to change that [Stuck Tone Syndrome]

I guess they fooled me. Where the hell in the article does it talk about not getting songs stuck in your head? Cures? -- nowhere to be seen.

I guess the article just got stuck in my head. I didn't want to read the whole thing but I couldn't help it.
posted by bloggboy at 8:45 PM on October 10, 2001


Holy Kee-rist, dong_resin, I've been plagued by those goddamn banana splits for months now. It started when I was listening to "Buffalo Soldier" and realized a disturbing similarity in the "tra la la" and "oi-yoi-yoi" choruses. (There, now I hopefully have infected the lot of you.)

Thanks for the followup, amb; I was intrigued by the LA Times piece, but it doesn't really deliver -- sounds like the researchers the writer talked to haven't come up with anything very compelling. The Feed piece is more interesting ; but neither really get at the thing that interests me, which is how something that in itself may not be "catchy" for everyone can get stuck, repeating like a broken record in my head -- not even necessarily a tune but often just a phrase. I guess cognitive science isn't there yet.
posted by BT at 8:53 PM on October 10, 2001


(There, now I hopefully have infected the lot of you.)

Bastard.
posted by jpoulos at 9:04 PM on October 10, 2001


In The Summertime by Mungo Jerry
posted by bjgeiger at 9:10 PM on October 10, 2001


Well you came and you gave without takin'
But I sent you away, oh Mandy


Freaky. I was listening to this cover version of the exact song when I stumbled into this thread.
posted by mathowie at 9:16 PM on October 10, 2001


Let's say the brain wants to send itself an anti-anxiety message. It could play something like the Beatles' "Let It Be" or the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby." But nooooo. Instead, the inner jukebox naturally selects Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

Oh, that killed me.

I get earworm all the time--I'm going to try that "contemplating the lyrics" thing. Fascinating subject, and mucho kudos on a high-quality post.
posted by frykitty at 9:21 PM on October 10, 2001


Uhm, They Might Be Giants anyone? If "Particle Man" wasn't so strong, I'd kick his ass all the way to "Istanbul". No... I mean Constantinople.. no Istanbul.. no no, Constantinople, damnit! -- Istanbul!
posted by bloggboy at 9:41 PM on October 10, 2001


Wow, that's pretty strange, I got a certain part of music stuck in my mind, it was pretty distressing actually. It was the later part of afx237 v7.
posted by tiaka at 9:45 PM on October 10, 2001


Holloway taught me a surefire way to get any song out of my head. Sing:
Boop Boop Diddim Daddum Waddum Choo!
It works every time for me, but then, I have a lot of faith in Holloway.
posted by Catch at 10:08 PM on October 10, 2001


I think these three are permanently stuck in my head:

Guided By Voices "Smothered in Hugs"
Pink Floyd "Interstellar Overdrive"
Theme from "Ms. Pac-Man"

Also, I tend to walk around all day humming whatever happens to be in my CD clock radio when I wake up in the morning -- something about that semi-conscious state really gets the tunes jammed in there real good. Currently, selections from The Photo Album.
posted by jjg at 10:19 PM on October 10, 2001


theres a good book ive read that kinda pokes at similar theory (or perhaps i just connected two pieces of information.....) but anyways the book is called "Music the Brain and Ecstacy" (not about the drug) its a fantastically interesting book and a must read for musicians or music lovers, IMHO. if you were dissapointted the book wasnt about MDA, go jump off a bridge and take your terrible pulsating noise with you.
posted by Satapher at 10:27 PM on October 10, 2001


Most of the time I can never remember words to a song unless I hear a few bars of the music and then I remember every damn word. But I think the brain just connects certain words to certain songs, like magic. Abracadabra
posted by redhead at 10:41 PM on October 10, 2001


Abracadabra

Awww...now I wanna reach out and grab ya.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:00 PM on October 10, 2001


...something about that semi-conscious state really gets the tunes jammed in there real good

you said it, jjg, for me it's the morning drive into work. I'm a late night guy, and I'm only semi-conscious then. I invariably find myself mentally listening to the internal music -- if not actually humming out loud -- in the afternoon, and I can almost always trace it back to the morning radio.
posted by JParker at 11:29 PM on October 10, 2001


Oridnary World by Duran Duran
posted by riffola at 11:54 PM on October 10, 2001


You all make sure you never listen to Abba's "Fernando" and consider yourselves damn lucky. Or, God forbid, "Chiquitita".
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:34 AM on October 11, 2001


Fernando.
That's great, Miguel, thanks a lot.
*gunshot*
(thud)
posted by dong_resin at 12:48 AM on October 11, 2001


When I get a bad song stuck in my head, I make up nonsense lyrics to protect myself from the evil actual lyrics. When, for example, the CIA mind-control division transmitted Abba's "Take a Chance on Me" to my brain, I sang "Take the pants off me (take the pants), take the pants off me (take the pants), I'm a nasty Swedish girl, keep the pants for free (keep the pants)" and so on, until the song wore off. And now when the song returns, I have the lyrical antibodies to fight it off.

(Or, I sing cat versions of the lyrics to my cat. I will not attempt to reproduce that here. And if you call PETA, I'll deny everything.)
posted by pracowity at 1:07 AM on October 11, 2001


I generally protect myself from getting a bad song stuck in my head by.....

...not listening to bad songs. A revolutionary approach, I think you'll agree, but so far it seems to be working just fine! I never listen to music radio - always talk/sport radio or tapes.

BTW - "Berlin" by Marillion today.
posted by salmacis at 1:21 AM on October 11, 2001


> - always talk/sport radio or tapes.

As if that's a way to protect your mind.

Anyway, I'm talking about when you have no choise. For instance, I share an office with a guy who enjoys pop music on the radio. To be fair to him, we switch back and forth between classical and pop.

And bad songs don't have to be heard to make themselves felt; sometimes they ooze from the ether and congeal within the ear.
posted by pracowity at 1:36 AM on October 11, 2001


i wonder whether 'melodies' can have the same effect on people regardless of cultural background.
i have argued in the past that 'modern' composers are wasting their time trying to redefine music, coming from a solely western perspective. eastern music tends to have the same effect on me.
posted by asok at 3:16 AM on October 11, 2001


How does a quote-melody-unquote differ from a melody?

[By the way, I just noticed that I typed 'choise' above. That's the sort of awful sort of thing that comes of contemplating Abba for several seconds at a stretch.]
posted by pracowity at 4:07 AM on October 11, 2001


It's always that damn sloop John B which gets lodged in my head.

Actually not, for the past several hours I've had "I Remember Clifford" by Benny Golson, which as these things go, is not bad at all.
posted by plinth at 5:27 AM on October 11, 2001


Why did I return this morning to check out this thread? Now I have "Mandy", "The Sloop John B," and a dirty version of Abba on some hellish obsessive-compulsive kind of shuffle-play in the stereo of my brain.

Of course, now I have "earworm" as a new part of my vocabulary. Thanks, frykitty!
posted by BT at 6:10 AM on October 11, 2001


Abba "take a chance on me" - 4 days in my head
also Barenakedladies(?) "Five days since you looked at me . .. " -also 4 days
Cause: OTB commercial and Mitsubishi commercial, respectively.
Advertisers count on this effect.
Maybe we can use it against Al Quaeda?
posted by computerface at 6:39 AM on October 11, 2001


Y'all could consider yourself lucky. Until now. "Alouette, gentil alouette ..."
posted by allaboutgeorge at 8:22 AM on October 11, 2001


something about that semi-conscious state really gets the tunes jammed in there real good

Maybe that's why I always got some damn Backstreet Boys song in my head during first hour Chemistry in high school. We listened to the lamest radio station during labs. gaaaah.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:28 AM on October 11, 2001


You know that Suzanne Vega song, "Tom's Diner"? It shouldn't be allowed to be played early in the morning.
posted by msacheson at 8:40 AM on October 11, 2001


Rolling Stones "Midnight Rambler" currently stuck; recurring problems with "Wheels on the Bus" and "Sesame Street Theme" thanks to my twin daughters, although the worst part is I don't even know the g-damn lyrics so I have to fake them over and over. Any word on a cure?
posted by Rubicon1 at 9:01 AM on October 11, 2001


Here's a cool tidbit for you:

In German, when you get a tune stuck in your head, it's called an "Ohrwurm" which is literally translated as an "ear worm". Cool, huh?
posted by UrbanFigaro at 9:03 AM on October 11, 2001


i also find that songs may be subconscious messages.
often i find myself humming a song which has words or a title which apply to what my subconscious translates as my situation.
tends to get me in trouble if i also subconsciously vocalise.
music means different things to different people. some seem to experience it as a neccessary backdrop to which they cannot assign any emotional content.
other people cannot stand background music, and may even become irate if subjected to it for any length of time.
posted by asok at 9:37 AM on October 11, 2001


I've had "Oops I Did It Again" stuck in my head for about 3 months. I've been hospitalized for about 2 1/2.
posted by jpoulos at 9:51 AM on October 11, 2001


Five words:

"Ghost Riders in the Sky."

Take me now, God...
posted by alumshubby at 10:13 AM on October 11, 2001


In German, when you get a tune stuck in your head, it's called an "Ohrwurm" which is literally translated as an "ear worm".

And coincidentally, "earworm" is what such tunes are called in English, too.
posted by kindall at 10:16 AM on October 11, 2001


the worst is when you have a song with funky lyrics stuck in your head. they burble and flit around in there until, all of a sudden and unnoticed by me, i spew forth with no doubt's "i'm just a girl in the world" or tenacious d's "with karate i'll kick your ass." the looks i get in the hallway are pretty killer.

earworm outsinging?
posted by carsonb at 10:31 AM on October 11, 2001


thanx for the post & the article - thanx for the "earworm" word
but NO thanx for all the earworms playing in my head right now then !!!! ooooooh **i** understand the man who plays the atari music since 1986 in his brain ... (anyway i just replace an earworm by another, so i'm not stuck with the SAME one for years - i only swap since decades ...)
posted by aureliano buendia at 10:33 AM on October 11, 2001


sure-fire way to get rid of awful song: sing "whip it" by devo.*

of course, then you run the risk of having that monstrosity stuck for a few days.

*your mileage may vary with old-skool madonna tracks. i've got this mix of "holiday" mashed up with stardust's "music sounds better with you" torturing me currently. devo's not working. i'm in hell.
posted by patricking at 11:17 AM on October 11, 2001


For reasons I may never understand, songs I'd rather not listen to always come into my head unbidden while I'm doing laundry. This week, it was "Push It" by Salt-n-Pepa. A few weeks back, while putting clothes in the dryer, I was also neurologically attacked by Guns 'N Roses' "Paradise City.

Hmm... why bands that have "n" in the name? Any doctors in the house care to speculate?
posted by poseur at 11:21 AM on October 11, 2001


"It's a small world after all..." never fails to drive out whatever awful song gets stuck in my melon.

the problem, of course (as patricking mentioned), is that "It's a small world..." is several hundred thousand times more insidious than just about any other song i can think of.

to get rid of that, i just read some vintage clavdivs.
posted by modge at 1:29 PM on October 11, 2001


Hmm.. Nobody has yet mentioned the decades-old SF short story about WW II song warfare? I believe it was an Arthur C. Clarke tale of an English researcher comes up with a song which is so distracting that it is hazardous. The researcher found that earworms got stuck in the brain because they had patterns close to human brainwaves. The Allies broadcast it on German radio frequencies, and the German war machine stumbles. Soldiers break marching rhythms, operators of all sorts of machinery get distracted and break things...

I think the story was "Ultimate Melody", in "Tales From the White Hart". I remember part of the song is "...only gingerbread left, left, only gingerbread left." Good thing all that's trapped in my head is the English translation, as it's not as dangerous as the original German.

But the "Ultimate Melody" was actually a different one, locked in a safe. It matched human brainwaves in a way that was fatal...if it didn't merely put you in a coma.
posted by SEWilco at 2:18 PM on October 11, 2001


Nobody has yet mentioned the decades-old SF short story about WW II song warfare? I believe it was an Arthur C. Clarke tale of an English researcher comes up with a song which is so distracting that it is hazardous.

Seems like I remember a short story by Franz Leiber along those same lines...an artist -- or maybe it was an advertising art director, performs a seance during a brainstorming session and comes up with a percussion riff/visual pattern that is fatally infectious. Folks world-wide start pasting the splotches everywhere and humming the riff. I think it ends with the Lord of the Underworld sending up a neutralizing counter-pattern because the meme was starting to spread even in Hades. The story was called, I believe, "Rump-tiddy-tiddy-tum-TAH-tee."

(At the popsink, we call those infectious memes "conscious loops" -- although, I kind of like the sound of "cognitive itch.")
posted by gee at 5:10 PM on October 11, 2001


my best friends in college each had a personal "brain cleaning" song - guaranteed to chase out any song stuck in your head.

-friend a: an abba song (which one, I don't remember any more)

-friend b: the brady bunch song, but only if you sing it all the way thru once

I still haven't found my brain-cleaning song. :(

the week after 9/11, I had duran duran, save a prayer running thru my head...kept humming it at inappropriate moments.
posted by epersonae at 6:16 PM on October 11, 2001


If I have something stuck in my head, I just sing any other song I can think of. After about 2-3 songs, I've forgotten the tune to the first one.

Although I've had "Hey Baby" stuck in my head on a low-level for years. It doesn't play in my head, but if I'm not thinking, or listening to music, sometimes I just start singing it. I hate that song.
posted by stoneegg21 at 7:27 PM on October 11, 2001


damn those evil muppets! manamanah
posted by Tarrama at 8:07 PM on October 11, 2001


"Hey Ladies
When your man wanna get buckwild
Just go back and hit 'em up style
Put your hands on his cash and spend it to the last dime."

Blu Cantrell, "Hit 'Em Up Style." IT WON'T GO AWAY!
posted by SisterHavana at 12:55 AM on October 12, 2001


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