Science. The earworm, a phenomenon that can drive you crazy

We have all (or almost) experienced the phenomenon: a tune that runs through our heads, that we repeat over and over and that we have trouble getting rid of. This is called an earworm. How and why does it occur? Explanations with a researcher in cognitive neuroscience.

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Sometimes it just takes a trifle to feel like a broken record has taken hold of your brain. A word, an emotion, a memory, a song that you have just listened to in transport or heard while shopping. And here is a little tune that goes round and round in your head. It’s going to last a good while. Even a whole day!

This phenomenon has a name: the earworm. It is very common and intrigues scientists. Nicolas Farrugia is a specialist in the matter. The cognitive neuroscience researcher at IMT Atlantique in Brest quickly became interested in the effects of music on the brain. He himself is a musician, from a family of musicians and always has music in his head.

When we start the discussion on the subject, we operate a small test. “If I tell you ‘public bench’?” he asks me. Inevitably, since then, I haven’t stopped mentally humming the chorus of the Brassens song! “Idea association is one of the earworm triggers, explains the researcher from Brest. Listening to a track recently is another. Not everyone is sensitive to it in the same way. Studies are beginning to show that earworm is linked to personality traits. For example, if we practice music, if we listen to a lot of music, we will have more earworms”.

Fast tempo, simple construction pieces, break in the melody are all elements that make this or that song easier to remember and hijack the brain. “In the most quoted songs, says Nicolas Farrugia, we obviously find hits, TV commercials and sometimes songs that don’t even exist”. Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” is on the list, as is Village People’s “YMCA,” Pharell Williams’ “Happy,” not to mention the “Released, Released” that has haunted many.

That the brain chooses to turn a few musical notes into a haunting, uncontrollable, repetitive worm is one thing. Getting rid of it is another. Already, plugging your ears is useless. More seriously, the researcher in cognitive neuroscience gives some leads. “Singing the song to the end can help, replacing it with another song too. There is a more surprising trick that works: drinking a drink through a straw because it engages the articulatory function of the muscles of the mouth which is linked to the auditory system”. Basically, it diverts the attention of the brain.

Talking seems a good solution too. “The proof, smiles Nicolas Farrugia, while I’m talking to you, I have no more music in my head”. It seems that chewing gum also gives results! If none of these alternatives frees you from a chorus that stubbornly ruins your day – especially if it’s not the kind of music you usually listen to -, all you have to do is take your pain patiently. Or pass on the earworm to your neighbor while singing it at the top of your lungs.

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