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Earworms: Can They Be Killed?

fingers in ears
According to new research, around 9 out of 10 of us have experienced earworms lasting an hour or longer.

An earworm is a song going around in your head that you can’t get rid of. Some claim that earworms are like a cognitive itch, we scratch them by repeating the tune over and over in our heads.

In new research, Beaman & Williams (2010) asked 103 participants aged 15-57 all about their earworm experiences. Here’s what they found:

  • Many earworms were pop songs, although adverts and TV/film themes and video game tunes were also mentioned.
  • One-third generally experienced the chorus or refrain over and over again, but almost half said that it varied.
  • 10% of participants reported that earworms stopped them doing other things.
  • Contrary to popular belief those with musical training were no more likely to experience earworms.

Searching for earworms on Twitter reveals people have all kinds of songs stuck in their heads. From The Muppets theme tune, The Sound of Music tracks, to Richard Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony.

Similarly this study revealed relatively little overlap between the songs going around in people’s heads. This suggests that it’s more the song’s interaction with people rather than the song alone that creates the cognitive itch.

Not everyone was equally undisturbed by earworms though:

“Those who found the earworms most problematic were respondents who considered music particularly important. These participants also reported experiencing earworm episodes of longer duration and harder to control than participants for whom music was of less importance.”

How to kill an earworm

Participants reported using all sorts of techniques for trying to get rid of earworms like listening to other songs and doing some work (two even reported drinking alcohol) but generally fighting the earworm just made it stronger. The reason for this is that, as psychologists have found, thought suppression can be counter-productive.

For most of us earworms are relatively untroubling. And if you are tempted to moan then just be thankful you’re not the 21-year-old described in a case report by Praharaj et al. (2009). This man had had music from Hindi films going around in his head against his will for between 2 and 45 minutes at a time, up to 35 times a day, for five years. Unfortunately even powerful drugs couldn’t stop the music.

So I don’t want to hear any complaints about “We Will Rock You” or “Whomp – There It Is”.

Image credit: Cayusa



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