How to Get a Song out of Your Head

Sure, you think the Beverly Hillbillies theme song is fun, but probably not when it's stuck in your brain, playing over and over and over. If that's you, you have an 'earworm.' You're in good company, because 98 percent of us experience them.

What is an earworm?

Earworm is the term used for a usually very annoying bit of a song that repeats in your brain. According to research from the University of Reading, it lasts an average 27 minutes. But your mileage may vary-some people experience them for years on end.

Earworms may be the result of an overactive brain. British and American researchers did a study where people listened to common pieces of well-known music while their brains were scanned via magnetic resonance imaging. MRIs detect activity in various parts of the brain.

Then the researchers interrupted the songs with a couple of seconds of silence. They discovered that the subjects couldn't stop the well-known songs from continuing in their heads when they experienced silence. The auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sounds, stayed active even when the person wasn't hearing a tune.

Facts about earworms

Some facts about that song stuck in your head:
* It goes by various names, including 'stuck song syndrome.'
* Literary references to earworms go back at least to Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote about it in a story published in 1845. Mark Twain used one as a plot device in a story he wrote in 1876.
* They're more common in people who say music is important to them.
* A pop song you've recently heard is likely to be the culprit.
* Many people experience earworms.
* Musicians who've been studied say they were happy about the music in their head. They said they most commonly experienced repeated fragments of a tune. Often it was the chorus of a song. About 60 percent of the music in their heads was music they recently played or heard.
* A study in the British Journal of Psychology found that experiencing earworms is widespread. The study reported that the tunes heard vary quite a bit from one individual to the next.
* Earworm songs are always familiar to the one experiencing them.
* If music is important to you, you might experience earworms that are longer and harder to control than for those who consider music not so important.
* They're something of mystery: The length of the earworm and the experience often exceed standard estimates of auditory memory capacity.

What to do?

There are two schools of thought. One is to think about another song-any song. You could also try to distract yourself with something else. Or, you could listen to the piece of music in question.

The other is to practice passive acceptance. This is based on the idea of ironic processing-the psychological process in which deliberately attempting to suppress a thought makes it more persistent. It's a little bit like a Chinese finger trap-the more you try to get free of the earworm, the more persistent it gets.

A study published in the journal Music Perception reported that, for a large majority of individuals they surveyed, earworms weren't seen as unpleasant.

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