The science of earworms (Bloc magazine, 2015)

“I just met you… this is crazy… here’s my number… call me maybe?”

These words have been repeating in my head for several hours now. They say nothing to me about my life (I haven’t just met anyone, and the last time I gave someone my number I was bombarded with calls suggesting, rather ominously, that I’d recently had an accident that wasn’t my fault), but they are becoming a repetitive mantra due to the naggingly insistent pop tune behind them.

I only have myself to blame. I was looking into the curious but very common phenomenon of ‘earworms’ – a condition where a passage from a song, often one you don’t even like, gets stuck in your head for hours or sometimes days at a time, and will not budge.

One survey found that Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2012 hit ‘Call Me Maybe‘ is a song frequently identified as having powerful earworm qualities. I foolishly played it a couple of times on Youtube and, yes, you guessed it, now it’s got its hooks in me.

Of course, having a random song stuck in your head is a pretty trifling, first world problem to have, but it can reach the point of mild torture. When mountaineer Joe Simpson (author of Touching The Void) lay on the verge of death from hypothermia and thirst after falling down a crevasse in the Peruvian Andes, he found he had Boney M’s ‘Brown Girl In The Ring’ broadcasting in his brain so relentlessly that he began to hallucinate that the song was actually playing for real from a radio somewhere nearby. His abiding thought was “I won’t want to die to Boney M”.

This would undoubtedly be a particularly pernicious form of earworm because the verse (“Show me a motion…”) segues seamlessly into the chorus with a very similar tune, and then seems to flow irresistibly back into the chorus like you’re exiting through one door then finding yourself back at square one through the next. So it’s potentially an earworm without end. Maddening stuff.

Thankfully, science has made some inroads into combating this terror of our times. They’ve even  given it a name – Involuntary musical imagery, or INMI. Dr Vicky Williamson, a memory expert at London’s Goldsmith College, found that there were several common triggers for such INMIs. In some cases, like Joe Simpson’s, it was stress, as if the brain is trying to combat the anxiety by automatically turning to music, with its proven ability to release pleasure hormones such as serotonin. One case study she found regularly got Bananarama’s version of ‘Nathan Jones’ stuck in her head while taking an exam at 16, and found it returning “at every single moment of stress in her life – wedding, childbirth, everything,” reports Williamson.

Another common breeding ground for earworms is, oddly enough, pretty much the opposite mental state, when you’re performing a relatively routine task that can be completed pretty much on autopilot, such as driving or riding a bike, and your mind is wandering. In a survey conducted last year by Dr Ira Hyman, a music psychologist at Western Washington University, he found that solving anagrams or sudokus reduced the incidence of INMIs because you’re more susceptible when not ‘cognitively engaged’. In other words, the devil will make work for idle brains to do. And that work may well consist of singing Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face’ unprompted, at regular repeated intervals.

So evidently, to turn ‘Call Me Maybe’ into ‘Calls to this brain are barred’, I needed to stimulate my grey matter. Another suggested solution is to sing a different song repeatedly, in the hope that your earworm will be nudged aside by a different, more benign melody. There’s even an app for that, unhearit, not to mention several websites such as earwurm.com, which offer daily infectious tunes designed to unseat your earworm with another.

I decided on a two-pronged attack, combining these two approaches by playing another catchy tune and making anagrams from it. Having read in yet another survey (do people really get paid to research this?) that Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer‘ was voted among history’s catchiest tunes, I began humming it while rearranging the letters of the title. The best I came up with were ‘Navy Loin Rapier’ and ‘Arrive Only Pain’. Strangely apt, I felt. However, as I scrolled through my iPod for the next tune to play, Ms Jepsen was back, like a singing stalker. “I just met you… this is crayzee….” Leave me alone, woman!

This kind of resistance was clearly futile. Instead, I decided a different, seemingly counter-intuitive approach. One thing that has been found about earworms is that it’s most likely to be a song where you only remember the chorus. That means that for the brain, it represents unfinished business, and it will keep replaying the song as if other parts of the song will magically reveal themselves at some point.

For that reason, the theory goes that by actively seeking out the song and listening to it in full, verse and all, may provide sufficient closure for the brain to leave to consider that fragment of song to now be in its rightful place, and fit to be left alone. So I faced up to my nemesis, who I have since learnt, once came third on the Canadian equivalent of The X Factor. And I played ‘Call Me Maybe’ in full.

And now I’ve got the verse running round my head instead of the chorus. Groan. Still, there is one silver lining on this particular cloud. Scientists believe that if you are infected by the dreaded earworm it is a sign of an active brain, and one which will be less prone to dementia. Already music has been used to help cognitive decline, as the act of recalling a tune is a mental exercise that keeps the brain fit and firing. So worry not – you’re being driven mad, but at least you’ve still got your mental health…

Johnny Sharp

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