earworms 2

head 2

Four years ago, I wrote a post called “Earworms,” a short essay about how catchy tunes become stuck in your head and won’t go away. According to research, it happens to 90% of us at least once a week.

Now imagine that the distant tune in the back of your head suddenly becomes very real. A real singer. Real drums. Real guitar. Strings. Full volume. These are called musical hallucinations and some people suffer from them on a daily basis.

In the years since I wrote that piece, I have heard public radio and others cover this topic (usually from a scientific perspective), most recently in The New Yorker and last week on RadioLab. Here is a segment of the radio show that runs about 20 minutes:

Listen to the rebroadcast of RadioLab’s April 21, 2008 segment on “Earworms”

Nothing ever happened as a result of publishing that post except that a friend called and scolded me for it, saying that I’d implanted something in his head that was like a virus. He must have thought the Groove of the Day was especially nefarious. But I warned everybody. I said, “Listen at Your Own Risk.”

I have found the subject of earworms of continuing interest. I once did a long drive in the West, and as an experiment, the radio and sound system were “Off” the whole time. Yet my head was filled with music continually. Full symphonic sound when I wanted it. Full voices when I wanted that. Whole scores. And “Off” when I wanted no more. I liked it. I was amazed.

But there are some people for whom earworms are a problem. They cannot turn off the song or lower the volume. They are afflicted.

Last year, researchers at Western Washington University claimed that the best way to stop the phenomenon is by solving some tricky anagrams. This can force the intrusive music out of your working memory, they say, allowing it to be replaced with other more amenable thoughts. For those unwilling to carry around a book of anagrams, a good novel may also do the trick.

“The key is to find something that will give the right level of challenge,” said Dr. Ira Hyman, a music psychologist at Western Washington University who conducted the research. “If you are cognitively engaged, it limits the ability of intrusive songs to enter your head.

“Something we can do automatically like driving or walking means you are not using all of your cognitive resource, so there is plenty of space left for that internal jukebox to start playing.”

Surveys by scientists have revealed a wide variety of songs tend to end up as earworms with three-quarters of people reporting unique songs not experienced by others. The most common tend to be popular songs that are in the charts or are particularly well-known.

The Western Washington team found that Lady Gaga was the most common artist to get stuck in people’s heads, with four of her catchy songs being the most likely to become earworms: “Alejandro”, “Bad Romance”, “Just Dance”, and “Paparazzi”.

None of them do anything for me. For my money, any Burt Bacharach song will do, but the following song meets the requirements above all others to qualify it for this dubious honor.


Earworm of the Day

Listen to Dionne Warwick performing “Don’t Make Me Over”


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