I knew I’d get another one, though. About 90 percent of people experience earworms at least once a week, according to the Earworm Project run by the Music, Mind and Brain group at Goldsmiths, University of London.
“Music lovers, specifically people who ascribe more importance to music or people who spend more time listening to music, have more frequent and longer earworm episodes,” says Kelly Jakubowski, a researcher with the Earworm Project.
Great. So all that singing I’ve done along with the car radio was coming back to bite me.
To find out what causes earworms and how to get rid of them, I contacted the man known as “Dr. Earworm,” James Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati. Certainly with a nickname like that, he would know something.
Kellaris began studying earworms in 1999. A former professional musician prone to getting earworms himself, he eventually became a marketing professor “interested in how marketers use music to achieve various commercial goals,” he says. “It was a perfect storm to create an earworms researcher.”
He explained to me that when we get an earworm, the tune seems to repeat itself involuntarily, which is why experts consider earworms involuntary musical imagery (INMI). This was exactly what “You’re the Best” had done to me.
So what, precisely, was happening in my brain when I couldn’t shake that tune?
What's Going On? (No, Not The Marvin Gaye Hit)
Jakubowski contributed to a May 2015 study led by Nicolas Farrugia, a postdoctoral researcher with the Earworm Project, that demonstrated auditory and inhibitory-related areas play a role in earworms as well.
The researchers examined 44 healthy subjects, all between 25 and 70 years old and all participants of a past neuroimaging study run by the Cambridge Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. These subjects took an online survey that measured both the extent of their musical training and how strongly INMIs impacted them. For example, the survey wanted to know how strong of a negative impact INMIs had on them or if INMIs were actually helpful while they went about their everyday activities.
When they examined these participants’ brain images, one pattern in particular stuck out: People who got earworms more often had a thinner right frontal cortex, which is involved in inhibition, and a thinner temporal cortex, which processes sensory stimuli like sound. In other words, these people’s brains just weren’t as good at suppressing the random song that might pop into their heads.
Why we get earworms, unfortunately, remains a scientific mystery. “We know that songs that are ‘catchy’ — short, simple, repetitive and contain some incongruity — are most likely to get stuck,” Kellaris says. Most people are more likely to get a song like “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” stuck in their heads than, say, a Mahler symphony. And some things exacerbate them: frequency and duration of exposure to music, worry, stress, fatigue and idleness.