Why does music get stuck in our heads?

Psychologist Lauren Stewart on earworms, their features and function

videos | August 30, 2019

It’s actually a very difficult question to answer even though we’re now at the end of several years of work where we’ve been investigating tunes in the head, earworms. I would say quite honestly that we actually still don’t know why music comes into our heads in this involuntary way. Some people think that this phenomena is becoming more common and that it’s because of us listening to more music these days. Music is so available on our phones, our music is all around us in public places, so we hear a lot of music compared to, say, a hundred years ago or something.

Psychologist Lauren Stewart on the musical perception, the emotional effects of listening to music and how can people with congenital amusia appreciate music
We’ve encoded and absorbed and memorized a lot of music, and it may be that this is a simple reflection of the fact that we’ve got a lot of music in our heads. You might say: well, we also listen to people talking all the time but we don’t have ear worms to speech, it seems to be a specific thing to music. I would say that that it’s very likely to have something to do with the repetition that’s inherent to music, so if you formally analyze any musical tune or most musical tunes, the degree of repetition either in terms of individual notes or individual intervals or even individual little patterns or contours, they come up over and over again.

In terms of auditory objects in the environment, there’s very few that I can think of that would be as repetitive as music and contain so much repetitive structure. It may be this property of music that can explain why it’s music that essentially can get stuck in our heads rather than another form of auditory input. Of course, it’s not any bit of the music that tends to come to mind, it’s a particular hook. These tend to be the most repetitive bits, or perhaps there’s a certain memorable quality to the tone of voice or a particular rhythmic segment that’s very unusual.

As I said before, when we analyzed a set of tunes that were commonly reported as ear worms versus a control set of tunes that were matched for chart success and popularity and sometimes the artists themselves, what we found was that the commonly reported earworms were characterized by certain features that were a combination of predictability but also something quirky as well. I can’t go into too much detail, it’s all present in the paper, but essentially it seems to be like a ‘sweet spot’ that combines something that’s very expected and we can anticipate, but it’s not too banal, it’s got some interesting feature that’s distinctive.

In terms of questions that we haven’t addressed yet, one thing I’ve just been interested in knowing is whether or not ear worms have a function. Do they have a purpose that’s useful to us or not? Or they just an epiphenomenon to the fact that music is all around us and sometimes our memories of music essentially are triggered?

There’s a couple of examples that I have come across where people have reported that music has come to mind when they’re at this interesting state of consciousness. For instance, Oliver Sacks talks about how he once had a fall on a mountain in Norway. I think this is in his book ‘A leg to stand on’. He talks about how he gets stranded on the side of this mountain and he’s broken his leg, and the sun is going down, and there’s nobody around to help him. And he thinks: wow, I really better get off this mountain soon because otherwise I’ll die. And he could feel himself slipping away out of consciousness. And he said: at this point music came to me, and essentially he had this very vivid experience of musical imagery, and he used this music to provide a rhythmic impetus to essentially row himself down the mountain on his bottom. He very nicely describes how the music that he’d generated internally was a very strong force in driving his movement and allowing him to get down the mountain.

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Equally there’s the book ‘Touching the void’ which is the story of climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates who have this horrific accident in climbing in the mountains. I think it’s Joe Simpson that said he had this very-very persistent earworm of ‘Brown Girl In The Ring’ and he said: ‘I really hate this tune, and now I’m actually going to die to the sounds of Boney M’. What was interesting there is that they’re both examples of extreme situations, almost life and death, where music seems to come unbidden into the mind. Particularly in the case of Joe Simpson this is not a song at all that he would have chosen to listen to. It’s an example of how little control he has over this because if it was up to him, he would have chosen a song that he liked or that he was used to listening to. The fact that it was this song that he really didn’t like is quite interesting, and what it suggests to me is that perhaps there may be a role for inner music in modulating our state of arousal, and in that situation it doesn’t matter if the tune is in keeping with your own personal tastes. What’s really probably important or one of the things that’s likely to be important is whether the tempo of that song is in a suitable range to boost your level of arousal. Regardless of whether you like it or whether aesthetically it’s pleasing to you are these kind of basic properties of tempo, for instance, going to be effective in modulating your arousal.

It’s all rather speculative because it’s based on these anecdotal accounts, but I found it really interesting. There were these only two, I haven’t systematically tried to collect anymore, but it could be suggesting a role for inner music in modulating mood and arousal which would mimic how we use actual music when we sit down and listen to music in real life, where we strategically choose music to either match or to change our state of arousal. So this is something that would be interesting to know in the future.

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Professor of Psychology — Goldsmiths, University of London
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