Chelsea Patenaude is prone to earworms — an endearing term for songs, jingles and other tunes, ditties and melodies that repeat unremittingly in one’s head.
“I have loud music blaring in my ears all day long, and more often than not, when I leave to go home there is always that one song I can’t shake,” said the 26-year-old Crossgates Mall clothing sales clerk, adding that she believes these irritating yet completely benign slithery invaders are an unavoidable hazard of her job.
“I really do think it comes with the territory. Tween clothing stores like these are famous for everything loud, loud, loud. The funny thing about [earworms] though is that I usually don’t even remember hearing the song that goes on to embed itself in my brain. It’s as if it creeps into my subconscious when I’m not paying attention or something. I think when you have fast-paced dance music surrounding your eardrums eight hours a day, whether you like the songs playing or not, something is just gonna stick.”
Patenaude said there have been nights when she goes to bed with lyrics “tripping” in her head.
“It’s very annoying, especially when all you want to do is forget about work.”
The term “earworm” is a literal translation of a common German word “ohrwurm,” according to James J. Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati and guru on the topic. The marketing professor said he got the idea for a study about how songs get stuck in one’s head from his days as a musician.
“We get songs stuck in our heads all the time because of exposure and repetition,” he said. “The MTV generation often gets top-40 songs stuck in their heads. Baby boomers — the TV generation — often get old TV and cartoon theme songs stuck. No surprises there,” he said. “I suspect that Tibetan monks get Buddhist chants stuck in their heads. It’s simply a matter of exposure. You can’t get a song stuck in your head if you’ve never heard it.”
In English, the earworm phenomenon is referred to as a “stuck song syndrome,” “repetunitis,” “tune cooties,” “audio virus,” “melodymania” and a variety of other expressions.
Occurring in between 80 percent and 90 percent of people, such occurrences, he noted, can last anywhere from a few minutes to many days. “Most people report episodes lasting from a few hours to an entire day; however, episodes lasting more than a week are not uncommon.” Additionally, he stressed, earworms are not only involuntarily repeated in one’s head.
“They often seem to jump into the mouth and throat as well, as people will often hum or whistle the tune that is floating around.”
So what causes a particular piece of music to bore deep into one’s psyche?
No specific causes
The short answer, he said, is no one knows for certain. But there are some interesting, albeit speculative theories.
For example, initially Kellaris thought the answer could be found in certain properties of music that make some songs “catchy” or “sticky.” But research shows that although many earworms seem to share common traits such as simplicity, repetitiveness and incongruity with listeners’ expectations, virtually any song can become an earworm for some people. Additionally, some people are more prone to the “affliction.”
According to Kellaris, certain properties of music may be analogous to biochemical agents, such as histamines, which cause an itch on the skin.
“Exposure to such music may cause a sort of “cognitive itch” in one’s mind. The only way to scratch a cognitive itch is to repeat the offending music mentally. But this only exacerbates the itch, trapping the hapless victim in an involuntary cycle of repeated itching and scratching,” he said.
Most people experience the phenomenon at some point, but some are especially prone to their grasp.
For example, musicians are more likely than nonmusicians to do so, more women than men, and individuals who are prone to worry.
The little buggers with endearing names can be difficult to cure.
Here, Kellaris offers strategies for getting a stuck song “unstuck.”
Distraction — Earworms like to feed on idle minds. So get busy mentally. Passive activities, such as watching television, may not work as well as more mentally engaging activities such as reading. If those don’t work, try walking or exercising to a tempo and rhythm that is different from your earworm, or, perhaps eating something hot and spicy.
Replacement — Some people try to “crowd out” or replace an earworm with a different, less annoying song. Warning: the replacement tune can become an earworm itself. So if you try this strategy, choose music that is relatively complex and less familiar.
Completion — Songs can become stuck when we can’t remember how they go. Try listening to or singing through a stuck song from beginning to end.
Tune Tag — Misery loves company. Why not share the annoyance of an earworm? Some people, including Mark Twain in the story “Punch Brother, Punch,” report that a stuck tune can be dislodged by passing it on to another individual. Tag, you’re it. This may sound cruel, but it can also leave you earworm-free, at least for a little while.
Visualization — Imagine the worm crawling out of your head, moving to the beat of the annoying song he is singing. At the end of the song, he falls out. Feel free to stomp on him at that point, just to show him who’s boss. His gooey innards scatter about, and he is powerless.
Why fight it?
Kellaris said he is used to earworms, but he’s got a way to make sure they don’t monopolize his mind.
“Since I play in the Dayton Mandolin Orchestra, I often get the songs we rehearse stuck in my head,” he said. “I’ve learned that the best way to rid myself of an earworm is to do nothing to combat it. They will go away on their own, but fighting them tends to make them stick around longer.”
Simon A. Rego, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said if you think about earworms from a psychological standpoint, they are inevitable.
“We potentially get a different thought every few seconds, and we are awake for 16 hours on average. That means you could have 4,000 different thoughts in a day. There will be productive thoughts, but there will also be plenty of nonsense ones. The blessing and curse of the brain is that is has the ability to create ideas that are wonderful but also distressing and annoying,” he said.
That process, he said, automatically make individuals susceptible to bouts of stuck-song syndrome.
Rebecca Linden of Delmar has been visited by earworms since she was a child, but she has never gone so far as to deem them problematic. Rather, she finds the mind glitches somewhat amusing.
“I’ll be in a grocery store or some place like that completely concentrating on something else, and suddenly the latest song from Mariah Carey or Gwen Stefani will just pop into my head. It comes from out of nowhere. So in that sense, I like the analogy of the worm kind of crawling into the ear,” she said.
“Instead of letting it loop around in my mind, though, I let it out. I hum it. I sing the words. Sometimes, people even say to me things like ‘Oh, I had that song stuck in my head last week.’ I kind of have fun with them, but I could definitely see where they could be very annoying. I mean I wouldn’t want to get an earworm in the midst of a business meeting. They get ahold on you and there is just no telling what can happen.”