Getting a song stuck in your head happens to approximately 92% of us. It’s otherwise known as getting an “earworm”, translated from the German word Ohrwurm literally meaning “sticky music”. For scientific purposes, it has now also been labeled as Involuntary Musical Imagery. It would be so easy to just identify which songs create earworms and do away with them, but there is no equation to determine what makes a song stick. Scientists have actually begun to discover that yes, the song composition may play a part, but our brains are also a major factor in why this happens to us.
When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become active, such as the parts that are involved with auditory perception, musical memory, pitch memory, and forming and retrieving memories. Thickness in these brain regions may determine who is more likely to get an earworm. Research has also found that certain people with specific personality traits, such as obsessive-compulsive or neurotic disorders, may be a higher risk to experience this. They may start by one of two types of association: 1) word association or 2) emotional association. Usually hearing a single word, or feeling a certain way, is the trigger to this cycle.
Since there’s nothing we can really do to avoid the start of an earworm, the real question here is “what can I do to end the earworm?”. Well, it may be helpful to distract your working memory, so you should turn to activities like anagrams and Sudoku. Tricky puzzles could be your best chance at pushing that little bug out. Another study suggests that chewing gum may help nix the worm because it disrupts voluntary memory recollection.
So, you may want to keep those puzzles and gum close by because you never know when the infamous earworm will strike!