You know that one song? That one song that gets stuck in your head for hours, days, weeks? Or maybe it’s just one stanza or a verse, or even just a couple of notes? Repeating ad nauseam, running in dizzy circles around and around your ears, driving you absolutely bananas by the end of hour 493?
You, my friend, have an earworm. Besides being consummately irritating, earworms are a real psychological phenomenon that has been studied by various important sciencey folk. No, really, it has. The term, a literal translation of the German Ohrwurm, was made popular by a marketing professor called James Kellaris. His studies showed that approximately 98% of people have experienced an earworm.
Daniel Levitin, a cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, musician and record producer, also delved into the study of earworms. He has published numerous articles on the relationship between neurocognition and music, and he is the author of This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. He has also worked with artists and groups such as Steely Dan, Santana, The Grateful Dead, The Blue Oyster Cult, Stevie Wonder and Chris Isaak.
If that isn’t enough for you, the well-known neurologist Oliver Sacks also researched earworms in his 2007 book Musicophilia, contributing the title “involuntary musical imagery” to the list of earworm synonyms.
Some other fun synonyms are “humsickness”, “repetunitis”, “sticky tune”, “brain itch”, and my personal favorite, “tune wedgie”.
So how do people get earworms (hereafter called tune wedgies)? According to Kellaris and Levitin, any song can become a tune wedgie. But there are some characteristics that make a song particularly prone to worming into your ear. Songs that are simple (lyrically and musically), repetitive, and contain some unusual feature (like an extra beat) are most likely to become tune wedgies. Some people (musicians and those who are chronically stressed, tired, neurotic) are more prone to getting tune wedgies than others. This, says Kellaris, indicates that they are the result of a complex interaction between musical (and lyrical) properties and an individual’s traits.
Okay, you say. I’m one of those lucky people who get tune wedgies all the time. So how did it get there? More importantly, how do I get rid of it?
Patience, young Padawan.
When you listen to a song, a part of your brain called the auditory cortex is activated. The same area is reactivated when you just imagine hearing the song. This retrieval of auditory input—whether it’s a tune wedgie or not— can be called “perception in reverse”, because it follows the same neural path as actually hearing a song, but backwards. This mirror-image of activity, Kellaris believes, is part of why tune wedgies get stuck so deeply.
The first and most common way to get a tune wedgie is simply hearing a song. This will trigger the auditory cortex and boom, insta-wedgie. But it doesn’t have to be an entire song. Often, it’s just a stanza, a line or even just a few notes. But once that wedgie digs in, it takes days of picking to get it out.
The second way is subliminal, or lyrical, exposure. This happens when you read a word—any word—and it reminds you of a song lyric. Which turns into a tune wedgie. Some good examples include “stop” (in the name of love), “one” (is the loneliest number), “blue” (da ba dee da ba di), and “never” (gonna give you up, never gonna let you down).
Got a wedgie yet?
I wish I could tell you to hang upside down from the archway of a cemetery gate while eating strawberry yogurt and twirling your feet in circles and your tune wedgie will go away, 100% Guaranteed Or Your Money Back. I wish I could say that because it would be hilarious to see, but also because we all want that one real tune wedgie cure. But sad to say, there is no tried and true way to cure a tune wedgie. Each one has its own cause and came to you for its own reason, so a panacea is, unfortunately, out of the question.
But there are some things that you could try, and I swear I am not making any of this up:
· Eat hot cinnamon candy. The intense flavor evidently distracts your brain.
· Listen to the song all the way through. Once.
· Listen to another song or album from another artist.
· Distract yourself by physical activity, like skydiving. But beware, the wedgie may return once the adrenaline wears off. This goes for less death-defying activities too.
· Drink alcohol (works like a charm).
· Pass it on—sing your tune wedgie to a friend. Beware: they may become an ex-friend when they walk away humming it.
· Play music; piano seems to work best.
· Go to the Eiffel Tower. According to earwurm.com, nobody has ever reported having a tune wedgie on this structure. And because I found it on the internet, you know it’s true.
· Listen to “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees.
If your tune wedgie endures, despair not. It will go away in time. If it does not, however, you may have a condition called endomusia, wherein the sufferer actually hears music that is not there. Endomusia is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder in that it is a type of persistent, recurring thought. It is also classified as a type of hallucination in that the auditory cortex is activated as it is when one actually hears music, not in the perception-in-reverse way that results in tune wedgies.
If you are interested in learning more about tune wedgies and various other intersections of music and psychology, I recommend grabbing a copy of Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks (Knopf, 2007) or This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin (Dutton, 2006). Or you could check out earwurm.com, which has resources to help you identify and get rid of those pesky wedgies.