When earworms attack!
December 18, 2014 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Ever had a song stuck in your head?* Investigations into earworms, musical hallucination and memory are shedding some light on the link between music and memory.

Many musicians say that some songs come to them in a dream, or they wake up with a tune in their head. It happens to me very occasionally, but I generally the tunes disappear if I concentrate on them. I don't recognise them and some of them are enjoyable. I lack the musical skills to notate them or even hum them accurately, so they are ephemeral.

Everybody is capable of hallucinating (via), but for some people the music in their head can become quite intrusive:
..for over two years country stars have played a private—albeit unwanted—concert in her mind, and so far there’s no intermission in sight
It can also reveal some remarkable things about memory:
...the songs she heard were popular tunes that her husband recognized when she sang or hummed them, but she herself could not identify them.
Interviewed for the Phantom Voices (vimeo) music/science project, Professor Martyn Evans explains how he experiences a constant soundtrack:
As far back as I can remember I have been able to imagine music whenever I’ve wanted to, but more recently it’s become intrusive. In the last ten years I’ve noticed it is becoming an obstacle to thinking, listening and reading, There’s music of some sort going on in my head more or less all of the time that I am awake. Whenever I am not successfully thinking about something else, then I’ll notice that there’s some music going on. If I lose interest in a conversation, or in some other situation, then the music will intervene and my sentences will start to fall apart. That’s something you have to watch out for in academic life! I don’t just hear music I love, because jostling for my attention is music I think is boring or silly or pointless, or even dreadful!
*Yes, there are snowflakes falling down that webpage at the moment, it's not a hallucination. At least I don't think it is. As mentioned in the first link, Durham University are conducting a questionnaire on the subject at the moment, it takes 15-20 minutes.
posted by asok (54 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
There’s music of some sort going on in my head more or less all of the time that I am awake.

If you add "and sometimes when I'm asleep," that describes me too -- all of which I'm grateful for. I'll fill out the questionnaire. Thanks for the post!
posted by sleevener at 11:25 AM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


'Tis the season for earworms.
posted by Foosnark at 11:27 AM on December 18, 2014


The longest unwanted horrible mind-destroying earworm I ever had was for about 18 months and was due to just one in a group of bizarre and escalating problems with ADHD meds and I would not have wished it on anyone ever at any time for any reason.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:28 AM on December 18, 2014


I wake up EVERY morning with a new tune in my head. Sometimes more than one.

The better ones I whistle into my iPhone recorder app for someday when I match them up with the tens of thousands of lines for songs I have saved in an Excel spreadsheet.

One page of the spreadsheet is a list of completed or partially completed songs by which I track my progress.

A few times a year I'll actually finish writing and maybe even recording a new song.

I should probably complete the questionnaire too.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:42 AM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


If you add "and sometimes when I'm asleep," that describes me too

Yeah, honestly, I started filling out the survey, and when I got to the question about whether I know when I'm about to "have" a music-hearing experience, I was like, well yeah, because the trigger is "being alive." The good news is that, mostly, I can choose what to remember or imagine when.

I don't have perfect pitch, but I can tune a guitar to my memory of "So Much To Say."
posted by uncleozzy at 11:45 AM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


When I was very little, I would listen to a song intensely in a sort of self-directed, primitive version of ear training to figure out how to sing it; the melody and the harmony. I've never been properly taught ear training, but I can hear a song and pick it up quickly enough to sing along to today. Sometimes, I'll purposefully think of a song so I can practice singing it.

In any event, I've been told that, to clear an actual earworm, either sing the song aloud if you can, or listen to Lowrider by War, and either way it would clear right up!
posted by droplet at 11:56 AM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


listen to Lowrider by War

There's a commercial airing right now featuring that song and I can tell you from experience that it's more likely to cause an earworm than to clear one.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:00 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


to clear an actual earworm, either sing the song aloud if you can, or listen to Lowrider by War

I have found that "Everything In Its Right Place" does the trick for me. But yeah, then I have to (get to?) listen to that song instead.
posted by sleevener at 12:02 PM on December 18, 2014


The cure I heard was to hum 'Happy Birthday to you' a couple of times. The theory given was that earworms were caused by partially-remembered melodies that the mind couldn't quite get right, and humming something familiar and easy would be enough to break the cycle. It sometimes takes three or more tries, but overall it seems to work for me.
posted by YAMWAK at 12:05 PM on December 18, 2014


Oh, no, uncleozzy!

Lowrider does work for me, as well as This May Be the Last Time, as performed by The Staples Singers in 1959.
posted by droplet at 12:11 PM on December 18, 2014


I'm right in the middle of the questionnaire yeah it's pretty clear and I'm beginning to think I'm not the right sort of person I ain't no size two to be taking it. I wouldn't describe my earworms as literally hearing music in my head, but I can shake it shake it but rather feeling a compulsion to sing in my head, I guess you'd say? like I'm supposed to do It's a lot like how I can create mental images of things I got that boom-boom that all the boys chase but I don't see them as if they were in front of my eyes. It's hard to describe; it's like a primitive version of the actual sense and all the right junk in all the right places Except, in the case of earworms, it happens automatically and I can't really control it. seriously this song has been in my head all day make it stop
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:11 PM on December 18, 2014 [8 favorites]


I always heard the theme to the Tonight Show (Johnny Carson version) was the ultimate earworm-clearer, but that song is almost an entire generation gone now. Sniff.

I had one moment in my life - it was on vacation - where I woke up with the chorus to an entire new song in my head. It was sung by a favorite group of mine, but the whole thing was completely new. It's the most bizarre experience I've ever had in my life but I still remember that chorus 20 years later. It must be what gifted composers get all the time and I totally understand it now.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:12 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm one of the "earworm is a description of every moment of my life" people, so I've never had much use for the idea of killing a song by thinking of another one; at best, I can decide to have a different song stuck in my head indefinitely, or maybe an unholy mix of the new one and the old one.

In times of stress I often end up with tight loops of portions of Yankee Doodle stuck in my head; I have no idea why. Yankee Doodle went to town, Yankee Doodle went to town, Yankee Doodle went to town, ad nauseam.

Brains are fucked.
posted by cortex at 12:14 PM on December 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


Music is looping in my head!

My AskMe question on this topic many moons ago.

For the record, exercise seems to help!
posted by jeremias at 12:33 PM on December 18, 2014


I had always assumed earworms were ubiquitous, but my wife says she just doesn't get them.
posted by Jpfed at 12:37 PM on December 18, 2014


These things plague me at least once or twice per week, usually for 3 or 4 days. I hate them.
posted by Uncle Grumpy at 12:55 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


HELP ME RHONDA YEAH...um...what were we talking about?
posted by NedKoppel at 12:57 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


The cure I heard was to hum 'Happy Birthday to you' a couple of times.

That doesn't work and now I have the lyrics to "The Final Countdown" running to the tune of Happy Birthday, which is sort of a worst of both worlds situation.

As for the FPP - I've never not had a song in my head. Usually, it is pleasant enough, but sometimes a shitty one gets stuck and I need to find some other music to listen to to dislodge it.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:59 PM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


Metroid Baby -- I got that one stuck in my head sooooooo bad, especially the bridge with the little wop-wop-wah-ooohs in the background.

The last time it happened (a week or so ago), I had to listen to music on shuffle for over an hour to break the hold.
posted by briank at 1:02 PM on December 18, 2014


That doesn't work and now I have the lyrics to "The Final Countdown" running to the tune of Happy Birthday, which is sort of a worst of both worlds situation.

As for the FPP - I've never not had a song in my head. Usually, it is pleasant enough, but sometimes a shitty one gets stuck and I need to find some other music to listen to to dislodge it.


Ouch. Sorry, Pogo_Fuzzybutt. That sounds terrible.
posted by YAMWAK at 1:28 PM on December 18, 2014


As for the FPP - I've never not had a song in my head. Usually, it is pleasant enough, but sometimes a shitty one gets stuck and I need to find some other music to listen to to dislodge it.

Yup, this is me too. I always have something running through my head. It's probably the reason I obsess on an album when I like it. I alternate between different tracks stuck in my head, and they draw me back for more.

I thought everyone was like this until a friend told me he never experiences this phenomenon, just a couple weeks ago.

Blew my mind.
posted by unknownmosquito at 1:44 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


My cure has always been to listen to Mahna Mahna, which, weirdly enough, can be an earworm as well. But I seem to have better luck breaking out of it then the others.

Funny that this came up - I have been in an earworm exchange with a coworker, and we've been sending youtube links back and forth over the last couple weeks. The one I sent her today was Jingle Rock Bell. I'll look more at this when I get home. I'm incredibly prone to songs getting caught in my head, and often I mash up more than one and sing them together, which gets even stranger, especially when I slip up and start singing out loud.
posted by routergirl at 1:46 PM on December 18, 2014


Add me to the tally of those with musical dreams and a constant background soundtrack playing in my mind.

For a period of years, I had a lot of seizures of the "sensory simply partial" variety. Seizing was disruptive, don't get me wrong, but I actively miss the sensory aspect of them, which for me was synesthetic, sometimes musically so. I found, for example, that high pitches were citrusy and musical trills felt effervescent, so that a high trill tasted like a sip of Sprite or 7-Up. That endlessly fascinated me.

Brains are weird, and also cool.
posted by DrMew at 1:46 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


That doesn't work and now I have the lyrics to "The Final Countdown" running to the tune of Happy Birthday, which is sort of a worst of both worlds situation.

what no this sounds awesome
posted by poffin boffin at 1:56 PM on December 18, 2014


> I don't have perfect pitch, but I can tune a guitar to my memory of "So Much To Say"

I instantly heard that song in my head when I read that, hummed the highest note from the opening riff, then leaned over and plucked the high E on my guitar. Yep, perfect match.
posted by svenx at 1:58 PM on December 18, 2014


Huh. Count me in as another entry in the "constant mental background music" camp. Went to take the questionnaire from the first link and found myself befuddled, though; I'd guess 90 percent or more of my non-musical thoughts are nonverbal, nonlinear, and overlapping, which meant I basically couldn't answer that entire long page of questions about how you talk to yourself in your head. I'm trying not to fall down an internet rabbit hole over whether this is Autistic-normal or what. Do most people actually talk to themselves in their heads with actual words? Somehow I've always kind of thought that was a literary device.
posted by dorque at 2:00 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I don't remember when I haven't had a tendency toward earworms when I was not being actively bombarded by other aural stimulation (and it was frequently echoing the last musical bit I'd heard before the quiet). I sometimes attributed it to when I briefly worked as a radio disc jockey, but knew it tended to hit me before then just listening to the radio. Also TV theme songs... that period when Seinfeld inspired other shows to limit their opening to a 5-second title 'stinger' was no relief... I've had that Seinfeld bass guitar repeating in my head for hours and it's no picnic. My most recent lingering earworm came for several days after the MST3K Thanksgiving Marathon and involved all 4-5 versions of the lyrics to the opening theme, sometimes mashed together in weird ways... and no, it didn't help to "repeat to myself it's just a show, I should really just relax"; that always made it worse (and the double use of the word 'just' always bugged me for no good reason).

I was delighted when the term "earworm" came into use to describe the phenomenon, but am frustrated that it never became universally accepted. I still have to explain the term half the time I mention it to somebody. (I have actually considered setting up a site for collecting and rating earworms, but wonder if anybody would care)
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:03 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've had Fugazi's instrumental Sweet & Low stuck in my head for twenty plus years. (Not a joke.) This isn't to say it's playing constantly. But I probably hear it in my head three to ten times per day, on average.

Twenty years is a long goddamned time to have a single song stuck in your head, but this one being an instrumental, it hasn't actually been that bad. I've come to think of it as the internal soundtrack to my life.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:06 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Reading this thread is like listening to a radio flip through stations.

A friend once recommended "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" to dislodge anything. So now that's become my most common earworm, of course, because I think of it automatically any time I get annoyed by whatever else is playing in my head.

I almost always have something stuck in my head, but it's always a song that I've actually heard, never one my head has made up.

Do most people actually talk to themselves in their heads with actual words? Somehow I've always kind of thought that was a literary device.

I don't know about most people, but I definitely do, especially when I'm actively trying to think something through. I realized on taking the quiz, though, that I don't generally address myself as "I" or "you" when encouraging myself -- it's always "we." Like, "OK, let's do this thing now" or "That's ok, we can try again." So it may be that I'm having a conversation with my brain, which is apparently a separate entity in my thoughts.
posted by jaguar at 2:15 PM on December 18, 2014


dorque, I talk to myself in words in my head. The weirdest thing is I remember when I didn't do that, and I remember the shift -- it was when I was ~14, and suddenly my brain ticked over into totally verbal, like I was narrating the book of my life to myself or something. Even at the time, I had a moment of "well, crap. I think I read too much" because I'd turned my head into a book without realizing it. (And it is like a book narrative, complete with punctuation/pauses. I think in serial commas and semicolons.) (And parentheses.)

I had no idea other people didn't have music in their heads all the time. Huh.
posted by current resident at 2:19 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I've had earworms that are problematic enough to interfere with studying and work concentration (although a lot of music has the opposite effect, in that it seems to help me stay focused, as long as it isn't distracting).

For me, the best earworm remover happens to be Put the Lime in the Coconut, but it risks becoming Earworm II: the sequel. I think it works so well because it has a rhythm that is different from most other songs.
posted by 1367 at 2:30 PM on December 18, 2014


Yeah, so now "Can't Get You out of My Head" is my resident earworm, so not only is it an earworm, it's an eponysterical earworm.

The worst, though, are the jingles from car and grocery radio spots from the 1970s that pop up from some primordial soup, and they're just teeny fragments, so trying to find out what they were the jingles for is a lost cause.
posted by blucevalo at 2:42 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Do most people actually talk to themselves in their heads with actual words? Somehow I've always kind of thought that was a literary device.

I always have. I'm.... sort of surprised to find others don't. 42 years and it never occurred to me to ask.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:17 PM on December 18, 2014


"It's a Small World After All" is to earworms what bleach is to bacteria.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:49 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I am an easy earwormer - meaning songs jump into my head fairly easily but they can be dislodged equally easily and sometimes there's silence. I talk to myself in words; I can't comprehend spoken words and read at the same time, either, because I read aloud to myself when I read and write.

Weirdly, I have an entire separate way of thinking which is entirely image based and translates very poorly into speech. As near as I can tell, I'm literally perceiving a brain split - where my verbal hemisphere is largely auditory, and my non-verbal hemisphere is completely imagistic and sensory (as in, sometimes I feel the ideas instead of see them).

To give an example of the latter, when I was in grad school a bunch of us were talking about how we felt and the nervousness and stuff, and I said, "I feel like I'm floating in the middle of this vast ocean, and I can't see any land in any direction, and it's just me and the ocean and the sky." I was describing a felt-sense, that is I physically felt the way it feels to float in the ocean out of sight of land as I described that. Apparently, it resonated with my classmates, because most of them said they felt the same way, but it's hardly an emotion as we describe those kinds of things, and the language part was a translation and not the source.

I will sometimes have images which never make it to easily shared language, like the gourd shaped bee hive I still carry around with me, or the sensation of using a spinning wheel to manage my feelings.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:19 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


"It's a Small World After All" is to earworms what bleach is to bacteria.

You can vaccum up the whole atmosphere,
Or completely poison the biosphere,
And it's really not that far,
You can just blow the star,
It's a small world after all.

#FixedItForYou
posted by eriko at 4:57 PM on December 18, 2014


I frequently recommend Low Rider as the solvent for shit stuck in your head. I've since found, though, that sometimes a maximum-strength prescription is called for - and for that I use Spill The Wine.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:42 PM on December 18, 2014


I'm another one of those resigned to a constant looping mental soundtrack to 90+% of my waking life. Somehow it doesn't even bother me that much anymore, maybe because like Deoridhe, it's relatively easy for me to switch to a different earworm. Mental silence, though, is difficult. Just the other day, I found myself in a meeting struggling to focus on what my boss was saying over the din of the mental Little River Band (why???).

It takes a lot to make a stew . . .
posted by mubba at 6:01 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Christmas is the worst time for earworms, though, isn't it? I've been spontaneously singing about hanging up your sock and leaving a peppermint stick for old goddamn Saint Nick for weeks now and I think it's driving my wife up a wall.

Seriously, why that song out of the hundreds of Christmas tunes?
posted by uncleozzy at 6:32 PM on December 18, 2014


2 pages in I started to feel like the survey was a psychological test looking for psychopaths.

I have a constant soundtrack, mostly stupid and happy dance music which is a great counterpoint to the depressing fucking stories on NPR in the morning.

"Up next... an Iraq War Veteran with just one finger left finds happiness as the caretaker of squeaky, the whale with a tiny blowhole" like that but to a kickin' beat
posted by bobdow at 7:15 PM on December 18, 2014


UnhearIt.com is a great earworm extractor, although it does run the risk of introducing an even worse earworm in the process...
posted by mothershock at 8:48 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Very interesting indeed. For myself, I can sort of divide the experience into several different categories (which they sort of did but without enough detail, IMO).

So there's earworms, songs that I find myself "listening" to in my head and more often than not either humming or singing to myself or drumming along to with my fingers, pen etc. Mrs Primate is susceptible enough that even just accurately drumming the beat of the melody of some songs will have her singing it in about five minutes.

Then there's "imagining" music. I used to write a lot of music, and when I was at my most productive, I could imagine - and by imagine I mean "hear" and I'll explain the scare quotes in a minute - up to four distinct parts if one of them was a rhythm part. So I could "hear" the bass line, the lead vox, some instrument like keys or guitar if it was comping, and one or two predominate rhythm features, like the snare+HH or snare+kick, or kick+ride, etc. I've also composed songs in dreams and been able to remember significant parts of them upon waking. Don't get me wrong I'm not bragging; I've never been a very good songwriter.

So the reason for the scare quotes around "hear" above is that I have also, although not in the last ten years or so, had an odd experience distinct from the earworm or imagining music. It happened often but not always when I was stoned. I was able to hear, actually hear music as if a radio were playing softly in the next room, or maybe just outside my window. I could change the channel or song on the radio although not always accurately. The experience was identical to hearing music that was NOT coming from inside my head. There was some sort of non-volitional aspect to it in the same way that you can't not hear music playing from speakers right beside you. It wasn't a scary experience, but it definitely seemed strange and completely different, phenomenologically speaking, from imagining music.

But I'm sort of weird in general and also have a bit of synesthesia with music (melodies and harmonies have colors, and phrases and beats have shapes).

Obligatory: "You may be right / I may be crazy...."
posted by digitalprimate at 1:09 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Honda, Mazda, Ford, BMW
Mitsubishi, Mercedes
Hundreds of cars to choose from
Lots to view, some
Nearly new!

Audi, Vauxhall, Fiat, Renault
VW, Range Rover
Whatever car you want, we got it
Kent's biggest car supermarket
Autolink!


The above bit of doggerel was such an effective earworm for me, aged 14, that at 30 I can still remember all the words. As superpowers go, this is not the one I would have chosen.
posted by daisyk at 5:10 AM on December 19, 2014


Oh man there was a fricken' huge thread a while back with like 500 comments of everybody coming out with their most embarrassing earworms and I cannot remember or find it. Damn.
posted by yoHighness at 5:36 AM on December 19, 2014


(Fills out questionnaire, does some more searching) So many threads about earworms on metafilter!
posted by yoHighness at 6:40 AM on December 19, 2014


I've said it here before, I think. I have "76 Trombones" in my head about 40% of the time. If there's not another song playing or that I'm thinking of or humming, it's fucking "76 Trombones."

And it's only the first two lines!!!
posted by robstercraw at 7:00 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I instantly heard that song in my head when I read that, hummed the highest note from the opening riff, then leaned over and plucked the high E on my guitar. Yep, perfect match.

The opening note of the riff is actually an A, which is what I use to tune (although it's an A on the E string, so it's probably a hair off, but it's close enough).
posted by uncleozzy at 8:35 AM on December 19, 2014


I have a intermittently faulty jukebox in my head that never turns off. It's mostly controllable, and I can sometimes use it to help calm or distract myself. I'll play through something noodly and jammy like Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick" or Phish's "You Enjoy Myself" when I can't sleep. Or I'll try to steer the music towards something dancey/repetitive when I need to focus at work (and can't have tunes going).

But I'm particularly susceptible to earworms and have a small list of artists that I like but just can't listen to. New Pornographers (or any AC Newman stuff) music will just stick in my head and repeat to the point of keeping me from sleeping at night. I can't think straight when my brain gloms onto some music and won't let go. I can't listen to my my favorite album of 2013 because one play-through and my brain was stuck on it for 2 weeks.

So it's nice in some regards; I have really good pitch memory based on songs I can recall, and I can kind of entertain myself at a background level by "playing songs" in my head. But it's torture when the wires get crossed.
posted by onehalfjunco at 9:01 AM on December 19, 2014


But it's torture when the wires get crossed.

The worst is when I've heard a song once or twice, but not enough to know it and then I play the parts I know over and over again in my head. But the song can never progress, because I don't know how it goes and I can't learn how it goes because I don't know enough of the song to find it.

Of course, before the internet, this was even more frustrating. Pink Floyd's Learning to Fly was the first time this happened to me. The opening riff was stuck in my head for days until it finally came on the radio and I could finish the damn song and move on to something else.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:05 AM on December 19, 2014


Right now it's Leave It by Yes.
posted by Splunge at 11:32 AM on December 19, 2014


I read a report on earworms by a neuroscientist who specialized in musical hallucinations. He said that everyday, routine earworms are just the brain looping on a tune it hasn't remembered fully, it's replaying it trying to remember the rest of the song. So he said, replace it with some other loop. Mentally sing a short song like "happy birthday to me" with emphasis on the closing note. Once your intentional loop is closed, that mechanism closes all the other open loops. Works like a charm. I use this version.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:13 PM on December 19, 2014




I've always been impressed by the use of earworms as plot device in Alfred Bester's "The Demolished Man." Er, because it was published in 1953, I hope I'm not giving away spoilers, but feel free to skip to the next comment if it's on your stack.

Basically, in this society, crime is prevented by a network of telepathic police agents. Our hero is looking to commit a murder - so how to get around this? Simple. Because he's a rich industrialist, he meets with his advertising agent to devise a jingle for his new show. He then asks an innocent question about earworms & the guy comes up with a fiendish one for him. This, then, gets conveniently 'stuck' in his head as he's planning and committing his nefarious deeds.

Of course, it all ends up going south, but you'll have to read on to find out how...
posted by The Outsider at 3:36 PM on December 19, 2014


Huh. I thought everybody hears music and has entire verbal conversations in their heads.
posted by SisterHavana at 9:39 PM on December 20, 2014


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