Wednesday, 7 March 2012
Earworms: Why songs get stuck in our heads
Music has a tendency to get stuck in our heads. You know the experience - a tune intrudes on your thoughts and plays, and replays, in a never-ending loop. It happened recently to me. So, as a science reporter, I thought I'd try to find out why.
Several weeks ago, I was at home on a Sunday morning when, for no apparent reason, three words popped into my head - "Funky Cold Medina".
When the song reappeared in my head, I could hear my friend singing it again and again... and again.
I was stuck with it for nearly a day and a half, before it finally went away.
But it left behind a question. Why do we get songs stuck in our heads in the first place?
"I personally couldn't believe how little there was in terms of research on this phenomenon," says Dr Vicky Williamson, a music psychologist who started studying it a few years ago.
She also collected more stories and experiences through an online survey at her website, earwormery.com.
The data has shown some surprising findings.
"You suddenly get five or six people reporting the song from a new film because they've just been to see it," she says. "When we first started, a tune from the hit American TV show Glee - a song called Don't Stop Believing - raced to the top."
She identified a set of triggers that had apparently caused these tunes to pop into people's heads and stay there.
"The first one is music exposure, which means the person has heard the music recently," she says.
Another unsurprising finding was that if you hear a song repeatedly, you're more likely to get stuck with it.
But sometimes songs pop into our heads even when we haven't heard them for a long time. In this case, something in our current environment may trigger the memory.
Williamson experienced this recently herself, when she was in her office and noticed an old shoebox.
"It's from a shop called Faith," she says. "And just by reading the word 'Faith', my memory went down a line of dominoes and eventually reached the song 'Faith' by George Michael. And then he was in my head for the rest of the afternoon."
Another trigger she identified was stress.
One woman in Williamson's online survey said a song - Nathan Jones, by Bananarama - first got stuck in her head when she was 16 and taking a big exam.
"She now gets that song at every single moment of stress in her life," says Williamson. "Wedding, childbirth, everything."
There are various theories that may explain why this happens.
Williamson says earworms may be part of a larger phenomenon called "involuntary memory", a category which also includes the desire to eat something after the idea of it has popped into your head. "A sudden desire to have sardines for dinner, for example," as she puts it. Or suddenly thinking of a friend you've not seen for ages.
There are a couple of reasons why this might happen with music, she says.
"Firstly, because music can be encoded in so many ways, it's what we call a 'multi-sensory stimulus'," she says.
"This is especially true if you are a musician because you encode how to play it, what it looks like on a score, as well as what it sounds like.
"Secondly, music is often encoded in a very personal and emotional way, and we know that when we encode anything with emotional or personal connotations, it's recalled better in memory."
She says the combination of rhythm, rhyme, and melody provides reinforcing cues that make songs easier to remember than words alone.