When I was sixteen, I spent a year living and going to school in Germany. Among other things, I fell for the German language… what’s not to love about the words weltschmerz, geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung, ahnungslosigkeit and the phrase das ist mir wurst? But one of my all-time favourite German words is Ohrwurm; translation ear worm!
I just can’t get you out of my head
What’s an earworm? When you get a song — or typically just part of a song — stuck in your head. It’s an apt but somewhat unsettling image. I can’t help but picture a worm entering my ear and burrowing into my brain.
…this little fragment, often a bit of the chorus of the song, that just plays and replays like it’s stuck on loop in your head. Elizabeth Margulis, Director, Music Cognition Lab, University of Arkansas
The term ohrwurm was coined in 1979 by German psychiatrist Cornelius Eckert. Researchers call the phenomenon Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI). Other names include tune wedgies, sticky tunes and stuck song syndrome. The Italians call them canzone tormentone – tormenting songs.
Ohrwürmer (earworms) aren’t necessarily good or bad songs, but they are catchy and tend to be extremely annoying because they are hard to get rid of. Research has found 91% of people have an earworm once a week, and a quarter of people have one once a day. Fifteen percent of people say they find earworms disturbing.
Interestingly, music pops into our heads unexpectedly and involuntarily much more often than visual images, words or smells.
The likelihood of getting an earworm seems to come down to three things: the music, the person and the situation.
What makes a good wurm?
Researchers at the University of London have found under the right circumstances, most songs can become earworms. But it is much more common for a song we know to get stuck. And songs with lyrics lodge in our minds much more often than instrumental pieces.
Earworms last between about eight and fifteen seconds and tend to follow a musical magic formula. The key components are musical notes with longer durations but short intervals between the notes (think of playing keys that sit close to one another on a piano). That’s not surprising given those features also make songs easier to sing. Earworms are also usually predictable but with enough variety to keep you interested.
Think you’re immune to earworms? Press play, if you dare…
Musicians experience more earworms than non-musicians — the act of practicing or performing music makes you more susceptible to getting a tune lodged in your head. People who believe music is important (even if they haven’t had any musical training) are more likely to get songs stuck in their head than people who don’t care as much for music.
And people suffering neuroticism and low levels of obsessive compulsion are also more likely to get frequent earworms.
Unsurprisingly, if you have recently listened to a particular song, it is more likely to stick in your mind. Similarly, if you have heard a song repeatedly the chances are higher it will become an earworm. And of course if it is a song that is easy to sing, the act of singing it yourself makes it more likely the song will stick around even after you’ve had enough.
Memories can also have a lot to do with it. For example, being in a particular place may trigger an associated song to come into your mind.
If earworms are something that plague you often, it’s worth knowing we are all more likely to get stuck with an earworm when we are tired, stressed or bored. Research has found waiting in a queue is a very common time to develop an earworm.
How do you dislodge a worm?
Distraction might involve tackling a crossword or sudoku puzzle or starting a conversation. Coping probably means putting up with it until the worm disappears of its own accord.
Research published last year found that for many people there is a clear winner when it comes to strategies to get rid of an earworm. But it’s not going to be fun if the earworm happens to be a song you hate.
You have to tackle your earworm headfirst and listen to it intentionally. Better yet: sing it. Out loud.
So if you hear me belting out some ABBA, you’ll know what I’m trying to do. Wurm, be gone.