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Earworms: The Music Never Ends

“For 26 months, I’ve had just one thought repeating on a loop in my head 24/7 and it’s making my existence miserable. I’ve tried all the traditional prescriptions and therapies…”

chipur reader “Ron” goes on to say…

“…but this broken record has a life of its own and nothing so far can stop or even change it.”

So what do you think is going on with Ron? An obsession/intrusive thought? Hmmm, I’m not so sure. Perhaps something known as an earworm is a better fit.

“What’s an Earworm?”

An earworm is a portion of a song that repeats compulsively within one’s mind. Neuroscientist and pianist Sean Bennett has done some great work on earworms. Actually, he refers to an earworm as Musical Imagery Repitition (MIR)…

“Previously heard music that, while consciously unintended, repeats uncontrollably and pervasively in thought.”

Characteristics

We’ll stay on Bennett’s side of the fence as we learn more about earworms. Remember, he refers to them as MIRs…

  • The average MIR “victim” has heard the piece at least once – usually three or more times. If it’s a popular song, the chorus has likely been heard at least nine times.
  • Right before MIR occurs, the victim is in a neutral to positive emotional state. She’s alone and bored.
  • MIR can occur at any time of day, and can happen several times a day. It can last for months, even years.
  • The music usually has words, and usually only a part (typically the beginning of the chorus) is stuck in MIR.
  • The victim has occasionally been successful at stopping MIR through distraction or replacement strategies.
  • MIR frequency does not appear to be impacted by – the music having words or not, the victim remembering the whole piece or a portion, the victim’s emotional state going-in, the victim’s history of psychotropic drug use (or lack thereof), a hyperactive or non-hyperactive personality, level of concentration immediately preceding MIR.

“Who’s Most Likely to Experience an Earworm?”

According to Bennett, there’s a bit of an earworm victim profile…

  • Those highly musically active or trained tend to have more episodes.
  • Caucasian individuals and individuals who grew up in the United Kingdom (or currently reside there) have MIR more frequently than non-Caucasians and non-British citizens and residents.
  • Those who describe MIR in negative terms have it more often (possibly because they cue MIR when they think about how tired they are of it happening so much).
  • It’s likely females have MIR more than males, left-handers more than right-handers.
  • People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are more likely to report being troubled by earworms. (source was not Bennett)

“Why Do Earworms Occur?”

Well, as with anything emotional/mental, no one really knows why earworms occur. But here are a few theories…

  • Earworms are a form of mild musical hallucination. This is not a psychotic experience.
  • They’re a side effect of the brain trying to consolidate memories – akin to what happens in REM sleep.
  • Earworms may simply be a consequence of our being surrounded by music in our lives – whether we want to be or not. That from Neurologist Oliver Sacks (from his book Musicophilia).
  • The Cognitive Itch theory: “Certain pieces of music may have properties that excite an abnormal reaction in the brain — in other words, your brain detects something extraordinary or unusual about the music that compels attention. Your brain tries to process the itch by repeating it, which only makes things worse — not unlike an epidermal itch.”

By the way, the cognitive itch angle comes from James Kellaris (Dr. Earworm). He believes the music most likely to cause an earworm has one or more of three key qualities – repetitiveness, simplicity, and incongruity (an unexpected rhythmic variation).

More from Kellaris…

“Earworms seem to be an interaction between properties of music (catchy songs are simple and repetitive), characteristics of individuals (levels of neuroticism) and properties of the context or situation (first thing in the morning, last thing at night or when people are under stress).”

“How Do I Stop the Music?”

As with most any emotional/mental malady, sure-cures are tough to come by. But a few ideas…

  • Put something in its place (even another song)
  • Distraction
  • Actually listening to the piece causing the problems
  • Chat it out with others
  • Wait it out – fighting an earworm makes it all the stronger
  • Make sure you’re managing stress and minimizing fatigue

More from James Kellaris…

“When earworms become a problem, some people swear by ‘eraser tunes’; those that have a mystical ability to eat any other earworms. Singing the eraser tune rids one of an earworm but risks replacing it with the eraser song.”

Diana Deutsch, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, has this suggestion…

“What works pretty well for people who are plagued by earworms is to ask them what may be causing them. People sing along with something internal, so music reflects what is in the back of a person’s mind, serving as some kind of personal reminder. If they remember that, music often goes off in their heads.”

The Last Movement

So how ’bout it? Does Ron have an earworm? Sounds like a great place to start to me.

Of course, mission-one is to bring Ron – and others – relief. We’ve come up with a handful of options, though I know we don’t have any slam-dunks.

But you know what? I firmly believe the first step toward resolution is coming to know and understand that from which we suffer. And we’ve learned a lot here.

chipur was meant to be a place of sharing, learning, and healing. Thanks to Ron taking the lead, it’s once again become just that.