How to Get a Song Out of Your Head

When it comes to music, there is a fine line between catchy and annoying. And sometimes a joke, a phrase, even one line of text can get stuck in your brain for several days and refuse to leave. There is indeed a name in science for this phenomenon that you are probably familiar with – a slightly crude but extremely evocative “earworm.” So, what can they tell us about why songs get stuck in your head, and more importantly, what can you do to banish them to the secret places in your brain, where they should be?

Why do songs get stuck in your head

We know that some people are more susceptible to earworms than others, but according to research by James J. Kellaris, Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati, almost all of us (about 98%) have a song stuck in our heads at some point.

Where do earworms come from? It is a mixture of things. Scientific American points to one survey that suggests they can be obtained from just about anywhere:

After hearing the villagers ‘YMCA’, you can roll up a mental tape. Other music in your head can be triggered by memories of summer camp, stress at work, or simply boredom at office meetings.

Applied psychologist Aditya Shukla has developed a trait checklist that describes the causes of earworms , which he calls involuntary musical imagery (INMI). These are “involuntary, spontaneous and repetitive perceptions of a particular musical sound in the absence of an external version of that sound,” he says, and the songs that create them include the following characteristics:

  • The songs have a common theme / outline, common, common and easy to remember.
  • The gradient of changes in the song, especially at turning points, is unusual and unexpected – jumps, intervals, ups and downs, pauses, tempo, hook.
  • They are relatively more upbeat [and] faster … than less tiresome songs.

Earworms arise not only from listening to a song, but also from memory, mood, stress, or even boredom. One common trait does exist in the types of songs that get stuck in your head, and according to psychologist David Levitin in an interview with CNN , the formula is pretty simple:

According to Daniel Levitin, a psychologist studying the neuroscience of music at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, the songs that get stuck in people’s heads are usually melodic and rhythmically simple. Usually it’s just a fragment of a song, not everything from start to finish … “What we think is happening is that the neural circuits get stuck in a repeating loop, and they play it over and over,” Levitin said.

Are the neural circuits stuck on repeat? Not fun, right? Especially when the song is called“I Poop” and your kids won’t stop asking Alexa to play it . On repeat.

How to get a song out of your head

Everyone is a little different, and getting rid of this looping song stuck in your head depends on your particular personality. Unfortunately, there is no scientifically proven cure for earworms. However, this does not mean that you cannot find a successful approach to dealing with them.

With that in mind, here are a few different tricks to break that tune and get your thinking brain back.

Listen to this

It sounds too simple to be true, but there is a scientifically proven reason why simply listening to a melody that spawns earworms from start to finish can supplant it. This is called the Zeigarneck effect, named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, and suggests that the effect of interrupting an activity or thought process may actually make it more memorable than a task completed. Shukla claims that listening to the full track that spawned this catchy snippet “resolves the unfinished song” and helps your brain to distract it from active thoughts – “how to finish the unfinished business.”

Identify the song, trace and delete

In some cases, the worst! – you have a melody or chorus stuck in your head, but you don’t know which song it is from. If listening to a song from start to finish is enough to get you out of your head, you need to know which song is the first.

To do this, you can use an app like Shazam or Soundhound to identify the song. Just hum or sing a melody in the app, and if you’re lucky, it will immediately identify the song. However, this is far from a reliable method. If you happen to memorize a few words, you will probably have a better chance of finding a song by connecting them to Google (“random memorized phrases” + text) in as many permutations as it takes to find what you are looking for. From there, you can try listening to the entire song on YouTube or in your favorite music streaming app to get rid of it.

Replace your earworm with another song

Another way to get rid of the earworm is to try replacing it with another catchy song that hopefully doesn’t get stuck there either (we’re not aiming to recreate the musical equivalent of the Australian cane toad problem ).

You can come up with another catchy song you know, choose one from a list of catchy favorites, or simply ask your smart speaker or app to play the current pop hit. It might be like sending a mountain lion to kill a snake, but at least the first song gets out of your head.

Another researcher suggests that the incredibly slow chanting “God save the queen” seems to help get rid of the song entirely.

Chew gum

Oddly enough, you could substitute oral for aural fixation: a study at the University of Reading in the UK found that chewing gum appears to interfere with the brain’s hearing processing centers, helping to get rid of cyclical thoughts. According to the New York Daily News , study co-author Dr. Philip Beeman compared the effect of chewing gum to talking inside your head, which can also affect your short-term memory and auditory processing, but talking in your head wo n’t freshen your breath either.

Distracted

Another common solution to getting rid of earworms is to distract yourself. For some strong-willed people, it’s as easy as thinking about something else. It takes a little more work for the rest of us.

Try some cognitive therapy. WebMD recommends stopping obsessive thoughts (or songs for that matter) by holding a rubber band around your wrist and lightly slapping yourself with it when unwanted invaders invade your brain space.

Beeman, the same researcher who studied the effect of chewing gum on memory, suggests that doing a simple mental exercise like a crossword puzzle can help you take your mind off the song that’s stuck in your head and hopefully leave it behind.

Dive into frenzy with a playlist of only earworms

If using one random song is like sending a mountain lion to kill a snake, then overloading yourself with a playlist of only earworm songs is like sending a robot dinosaur with laser eyes instead of eyes to kill a mountain lion. This solution requires creating a customized playlist for all earworms filled with popular songs. We know that the songs that get stuck in people’s heads are harmoniously and rhythmically simple, so your playlist should focus on songs with these elements.

To create your own playlist, you can follow the basic principles of creating an exercise playlist . The trick is to sort your songs by beats per minute (BPM) and find the easiest ones. Most pop songs have a BPM of around 120 , so this is a good place to start. The walk.jog.fm site allows you to search for songs by BPM; from there choose your simple song poison, build your playlist and swing until that earworm disappears. This article was originally published in August 2012 and substantially revised in August 2020 by Joel Cunningham to remove broken links and provide up-to-date information, tips, and links, and to replace the title image.

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