An earworm, sometimes known as a brainworm,[1] sticky music, stuck song syndrome,[2] or Involuntary Musical Imagery (IMI),[3] is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person's mind after it is no longer playing.[4] Phrases used to describe an earworm include "musical imagery repetition", "involuntary musical imagery", "cognitive itch", and "stuck song syndrome".[1][5][6]

The word earworm is a calque from the German Ohrwurm, which has had this sense since the mid-20th century.[7][8] The earliest known English usage is in Desmond Bagley's 1978 novel Flyaway, where the author points out the German origin of his coinage.[9]

Researchers who have studied and written about the phenomenon include Theodor Reik,[10] Sean Bennett,[11] Oliver Sacks,[1] Daniel Levitin,[12] James Kellaris,[13] Philip Beaman,[14] Vicky Williamson,[15] Diana Deutsch, [16] and, in a more theoretical perspective, Peter Szendy.[17] The phenomenon should not be confused with palinacousis, a rare medical condition caused by damage to the temporal lobe of the brain that results in auditory hallucinations.[18]

Incidence and causes

Researcher Vicky Williamson at Goldsmiths, University of London, found in an uncontrolled study that earworms correlated with music exposure, but could also be triggered by experiences that trigger the memory of a song (involuntary memory) such as seeing a word that reminds one of the song, hearing a few notes from the song, or feeling an emotion one associates with the song. The list of songs collected in the study showed no particular pattern, other than popularity.[2]

According to research by James Kellaris, 98% of individuals experience earworms. Women and men experience the phenomenon equally often, but earworms tend to last longer for women and irritate them more.[19] Kellaris produced statistics suggesting that songs with lyrics may account for 73.7% of earworms, whereas instrumental music may cause only 7.7%.[20]

In 2010, published data in the British Journal of Psychology directly addressed the subject, and its results support earlier claims that earworms are usually 15 to 30 seconds in length and are more common in those with an interest in music.[14]


Scientists at Western Washington University found that engaging working memory in moderately difficult tasks (such as anagrams, Sudoku puzzles, or reading a novel) was an effective way of stopping earworms and of reducing their recurrence.[21][22] Another publication points out that melodic music has a tendency to demonstrate repeating rhythm which may lead to endless repetition, unless a climax can be achieved to break the cycle.[23]

Research reported in 2015 by the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading demonstrated that chewing gum could help by similarly blocking the sub-vocal rehearsal component of auditory short-term or "working" memory associated with generating and manipulating auditory and musical images.[24] It has also been suggested to ask oneself why one is experiencing this particular song. [16] Another suggested remedy is to try to find a "cure song" to stop the repeating music.[25][26]

Notable cases

Jean Harris, who murdered Herman Tarnower, was obsessed with the song "Put the Blame on Mame", which she first heard in the film Gilda. She would recall this regularly for over 33 years and could hold a conversation while playing it in her mind.[27]

Mark Twain's 1876 story "A Literary Nightmare" (also known as "Punch, Brothers, Punch") is about a jingle that one can get rid of only by transferring it to another person.

In 1943 Henry Kuttner published the short story "Nothing but Gingerbread Left" about a song engineered to damage the Nazi war effort, culminating in Adolf Hitler being unable to continue a speech.[28]

In Alfred Bester's 1953 novel The Demolished Man, the protagonist uses a jingle specifically crafted to be a catchy, irritating nuisance as a tool to block mind readers from reading his mind.

In Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 science fiction short story "The Ultimate Melody", a scientist, Gilbert Lister, develops the ultimate melody – one that so compels the brain that its listener becomes completely and forever enraptured by it. As the storyteller, Harry Purvis, explains, Lister theorized that a great melody "made its impression on the mind because it fitted in with the fundamental electrical rhythms going on in the brain." Lister attempts to abstract from the hit tunes of the day to a melody that fits in so well with the electrical rhythms that it dominates them completely. He succeeds and is found in a catatonic state from which he never awakens.[29]

In Fritz Leiber's Hugo Award-nominated short story "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee" (1959), the title describes a rhythmic drumbeat so powerful that it rapidly spreads to all areas of human culture, until a counter-rhythm is developed that acts as an antidote.[30]

In Joe Simpson's 1988 book Touching the Void, he talks about not being able to get the tune "Brown Girl in the Ring" by Boney M out of his head. The book tells of his survival, against the odds, after a mountaineering accident in the remote Siula Grande region of South America. Alone, badly injured, and in a semi-delirious state, he is confused as to whether he is imagining the music or really hearing it.[31]

In the Dexter's Laboratory episode titled "Head Band", a contagious group of viruses force their host to sing what they are saying to the same "boy band" tune. The only way to be cured of the Boy Band Virus is for the viruses to break up and start their own solo careers.[32]

E. B. White's 1933 satirical short story "The Supremacy of Uruguay" (reprinted in Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow) relates a fictional episode in the history of Uruguay where a powerful earworm is discovered in a popular American song. The Uruguayan military builds a squadron of pilotless aircraft armed with phonographs playing a highly amplified recording of the earworm, and conquers the entire world by reducing the citizens of all nations to mindless insanity. "[T]he peoples were hopelessly mad, ravaged by an ineradicable noise ... No one could hear anything except the noise in his own head."[33]

See also


  1. Sacks, Oliver (2007). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. First Vintage Books. pp. 41–48. ISBN 978-1-4000-3353-9.
  2. "Earworms: Why songs get stuck in our heads". 2012-03-07.
  3. Jakubowski, Kelly; Finkel, Sebastian; Stewart, Lauren; Müllensiefen, Daniel (2017). "Dissecting an earworm: Melodic features and song popularity predict involuntary musical imagery" (PDF). Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. American Psychological Association (APA). 11 (2): 122–135. doi:10.1037/aca0000090. ISSN 1931-390X.
  4. "Oxford Dictionaries: "earworm"". Oxford University Press. Retrieved July 4, 2013.
  5. Liikkanen, L. A. (2012). "Inducing involuntary musical imagery: An experimental study" (PDF). Musicae Scientiae. 16 (2): 217–234. doi:10.1177/1029864912440770.
  6. Liikkanen, Lassi A. (2008). "Music in Everymind: Commonality of Involuntary Musical Imagery" (PDF). Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC 10). Sapporo, Japan: 408–412. ISBN 978-4-9904208-0-2. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-02-03.
  7. "earworm", wordspy.com
  8. "Ohrwurm", www.dwds.de
  9. Desmond Bagley, Flyaway Archived 2015-05-21 at the Wayback Machine (1978), p. 41: "I fell into a blind, mindless rhythm and a chant was created in my mind what the Germans call an 'earworm' something that goes round and round in your head and you can't get rid of it. One bloody foot before the next bloody foot."
  10. Reik, Theodor (1953). The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music. New York: Grove Press.
  11. Bennett, Sean (August 30, 2002). Musical Imagery Repetition (Master). Cambridge University.
  12. Levitin, Daniel (2006). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Dutton, Penguin. ISBN 0452288525. Retrieved August 7, 2012.
  13. Kellaris, James J. (Winter2001). "Identifying Properties of Tunes That Get 'Stuck in Your Head'". Proceedings of the Society for Consumer Psychology. Scottsdale, AZ: American Psychological Society: 66–67. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  14. Beaman, C. P.; Williams, T. I. (2010). "Earworms (stuck song syndrome): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts". British Journal of Psychology. 101 (4): 637. doi:10.1348/000712609X479636.
  15. Chatterjee, Rhitu (6 March 2012). "Earworms: Why songs get stuck in our heads". BBC News. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  16. Deutsch, D. (2019). "Catchy Music and Earworms". Musical Illusions and Phantom Words: How Music and Speech Unlock Mysteries of the Brain. Oxford University Press. pp. 116–127. ISBN 9780190206833. LCCN 2018051786.
  17. Szendy, Peter (2012). Hits. Philosophy in the Jukebox. translated by William Bishop. Fordham University Press.
  18. Moore, David R.; Fuchs, Paul Paul Albert; Rees, Adrian; Palmer, Alan; Plack, Christopher J. (January 21, 2010). The Oxford Handbook of Auditory Science: The Auditory Brain. Oxford University Press. p. 535. ISBN 9780199233281. Retrieved July 3, 2013.
  19. Adams, Cecil (October 16, 2009), "Why do songs get stuck in your head?", The Straight Dope
  20. Hoffman, Carey (2001-04-04). "Songs That Cause The Brain To 'Itch': UC Professor Investigating Why Certain Tunes Get Stuck In Our Heads". University of Cincinnati. Retrieved 2012-08-06. Of the 1,000 respondents, the kind of music respondents said they got stuck on most recently were songs with lyrics for 73.7 percent, jingles or ads for 18.6 percent and an instrumental tune for 7.7 percent.
  21. Gray, Richard (24 March 2013). "Get that tune out of your head – scientists find how to get rid of earworms". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
  22. Got a song stuck in your head? Solving an anagram can help get rid of it, Daily Mail, 24 March 2013
  23. Schwanauer, Stephan M.; Levitt, David A. (1993). Machine Models of Music. MIT Press. p. 174. ISBN 978-0-262-19319-1.
  24. "Listen up – new research shows chewing gum could remove that stuck record in your head", University of Reading, 22 April 2015
  25. "Science Identified 'Cure Songs' to Get Songs Unstuck From Your Brain, I Guess All Diseases Have Been Cured" by Dan Van Winkle, The Mary Sue, March 3, 2014
  26. "Sticky Tunes: How Do People React to Involuntary Musical Imagery?" by Victoria J. Williamson, Lassi A. Liikkanen, Kelly Jakubowski, Lauren Stewart, PLoS ONE 9(1), January 31, 2014, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0086170
  27. Díaz de Chumaceiro, Cora L. (October 16, 2004). "Jean Harris' Obsessive Film Song Recall". PsyArt.
  28. Kuttner, Henry. "Nothing But Gingerbread Left". Archived from the original on 14 March 2012. Retrieved 10 October 2017. Full text of story
  29. Chorost, Michael, "The Ultimate Melody by Arthur C. Clarke", The Web site of aleph, archived from the original on 2011-01-01, retrieved 2010-08-17
  30. Pretor-Pinney, Gavin (2010), The Wavewatcher's Companion, Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 218, ISBN 978-0-7475-8976-1
  31. Simpson, Joe (1988). Touching the Void.
  32. "Dexter's Laboratory: Head Band / Stuffed Animal House / Used Ink". TV.com. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
  33. "The Supremacy of Uruguay". www.armandobronca.com. Retrieved January 17, 2014.

Further reading

  • Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis (2013). On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199990825.
  • Vadim Prokhorov (22 June 2006), "Can't get it out of my head", The Guardian
  • Divya Singhal (December 8, 2011), Why this Kolaveri Di: Maddening Phenomenon of Earworm, SSRN 1969781
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