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Fear the Earworm

wormy worm

wormy worm

We’ve all experienced it: that song fragment or commercial jingle or TV sitcom theme that goes around and around in your head, maddeningly repeating itself. It’s called an earworm with good reason, feeling like it’s going to eat away at your brains like that nasty larva-thing they put in Chekhov’s ear in Wrath of Khan.

Sometimes they’re contagious, when someone mentions an annoying song and you suddenly can’t stop hearing it in your head. Sometimes you can get rid of it by thinking of a different annoying song, but then that song is lodged in your brain instead.

Common earworm songs include “YMCA,” “Who Let the Dogs Out,” “We Will Rock You,” “Gangnam Style,” and the ever-horrifying “It’s a Small World.” That last one is so bad that in The Lion King, when Zazu begins to sing it, evil Uncle Scar moans, “NO! ANYTHING but that!”

There has even been scientific research into the phenomenon. A University of Cincinnati professor did a study on earworms and found that women and musicians are most often afflicted. Earworms are an individual matter, though, as the top song reported overall was “Other,” meaning that everyone had their own personal demon song. In second place, however, was the Chili’s baby back ribs jingle.

Unbelievably (or maybe not so unbelievably), the University of London has an entire Earworm Project, a research group with several projects examining the nature of earworms. The project is being conducted in conjunction with 6Music (BBC Radio). Apparently the term “earworm” comes from the German word meaning earwig or other small insect, but has come to mean a catchy tune.

Project 1 looks at what features earworms seem to have in common. This phase was conducted using data from over 1,000 reports of earworms by the study participants. They are developing a computational model by which they can predict whether a song is likely to become an earworm or not (by analyzing which parts of of the musical structure of songs seem to be the most “sticky”).

Project 2 looks at what the people who experience frequent earworms have in common. While data analysis (of over 2,000 reports) is not yet complete, the group claims to have found some interesting correlations between certain personality types, musicality, and the tendency to be struck with earworms.

 

Project 3 looks at the cause of earworms. After analyzing over 3,000 reports, it appears that while the music in our immediate environment can have an effect on our earworm experiences, it is not the only factor. Memory activation in the brain also plays a part, as does the effect of mood and attentional state when the song is heard.

 

Project 4 examines “cures” for earworms, ways to control and tame them, using over 1,000 reports. In particular they looked to see if there was a particular type of tune that one could use to substitute for the earworm, without getting stuck in its place. There were no conclusive cures, only coping strategies such as listening to the song in its entirety or using other music or verbal material to drown it out.

All I know is that earworms are usually snatches of horrid songs you wish had never existed. But they can also be bits of songs you really like, and that can be even worse, because then that song can become completely ruined for you. I had this one bit from the Lumineers’ cover of “This Must Be the Place,” a song I really liked, go through my head over and over for WEEKS, until I was ready to take an electric drill to my skull. After that, I couldn’t hear that song without gagging a little. Chekhov, with that nasty larvae-thing in his ear, probably didn’t feel much worse.

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