My Web site should be up Wednesday sometime. In the meantime, here’s this week’s science column, which I normally would have online by now.

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By Edward Willett

Do you suffer from earworms?

That’s not a question about personal hygiene; “earworms” are what University of Cincinnati marketing professor James Kellaris calls those annoying tunes that get stuck in your head and play over and over and over and over and…

In his most recent study of earworms, Kellaris found that 98 percent of his 559 participants had experienced the phenomenon; almost half said that it occurs frequently.

Kellaris, a musician, suffers from earworms himself–usually Byazantine chants (his wife is a church choir director). Kellaris has found that people who are constantly exposed to music suffer earworms more frequently than those who are not.

He also found that women found earworms more irritating and frustrating than men do, that those with compulsive tendencies tend to be more afflicted, and that people who are more neurotic suffer more because they tend to fret about how long an earworm is going to plague them, which exacerbates the problem.

Kellaris provided his study participants with a “playlist from hell,” and asked them to indicate which songs on it were most likely to become earworms. Among the popular choices were “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” “Who Let the Dogs Out,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” “YMCA,” “It’s a Small World After All,” and the “Mission: Impossible” theme. However, the most popular choice was “Other”; earworms are highly individual things.

Nevertheless, Kellaris has identified three characteristics common to many earworms. One is repetition. A song with lots of repetition, such as the “Mission: Impossible” theme, Kellaris thinks, subliminally suggests to the brain that the repetition should continue even after the song is over.

Another characteristic is simplicity. Children’s tunes are more likely to get stuck in your head than Beethoven, in other words. (To which I can attest, since I have a two-year-old daughter.)

Still another earworm characteristic is incongruity. If a song does something unexpected, rhythmically, melodically or stylistically, it can lodge in your brain. Examples are Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” or “America” from West Side Story. (Or, for that matter, the “Mission: Impossible” theme again.)

Kellaris believes earworms may set up a kind of “cognitive itch.” Just like we deal with an ordinary itch by repeatedly scratching, so we deal with the itch created by one of these earworms by replaying the tune over and over. “The process may start involuntarily, as the brain detects an incongruity or something exceptional in the musical stimulis,” is the way Kellaris puts it. “The ensuing mental repetition may exacerbate the ‘itch,’ such that the mental rehearsal becomes largely involuntary, and the individual feels trapped in a cycle or feedback loop.”

The part of the brain where all this happens was recently identified by researchers from Dartmouth College. Although music activates many different parts of the brain (identified by MRI scans of people listening to music) in different people, the one part of the brain that is activated in everyone who hears music is the rostromedial prefrontal cortex, located near the center of the forehead. (Interestingly, from the earworm point of view, this region has links to short- and long-term memory.) When a person hears a musical pattern, it sets up a matching pattern in this part of the brain. But every time the same music is heard, the pattern in the brain is slightly different–which may explain why sometimes a tune makes you want to dance, another time it makes you want to cry, and the third time, it becomes an earworm.

Kellaris doesn’t have any scientific suggestions about how to rid yourself of earworms, although he did collect study respondents’ own methods, which ranged from the direct (doing something else or reading out loud) to the humorous (inflicting the tune on someone else or singing the theme from “Gilligan’s Island,”– itself a notorious earworm) to the downright bizarre (chewing on a cinnamon stick).

Kellaris’s research is continuing, although personally I find it ominous that he’s a professor of marketing. The ultimate use of this knowledge, I fear, will be to create advertising jingles even more insidious and unforgettable than the ones we know and hate today–and I’m still trying to get “You Deserve a Break Today” and “I’m A Pepper, You’re A Pepper, He’s a Pepper, She’s a Pepper” out of my head after more than two decades.

Maybe I’ll go chew a cinnamon stick.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2003/11/earworms/

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