Over the past couple of days, every once in a while, music from the song “Time after Time”, spontaneously starts playing in my head. It is like having a pilot light constantly flickering in your brain while you just wait for it to flare up. Except for the Goonies and Girls Just Want to Have Fun, I was never much of a Cyndi Lauper fan, so I only know two lines from this song but they keep repeating themselves.
My wife Diane seems especially susceptible to the works of Ricky Nelson. Whenever she plays Ricky Nelson songs as the background music at the bookstore she manages, she gets stuck on “Hello Mary Lou” for days. At least it’s not “Garden Party”.
Neuroscientists call this phenomena an “earworm”, which is the literal translation of the German term, Ohrwurm, which simply means a song that gets stuck in your head. Over 98% of Americans report having this experience. One-third of respondents in a international survey said they have earworms every day and 90% said they occur at least once a week.
As early as 1876, Mark Twain wrote a tongue-in-cheek article for the Atlantic Monthly, in which he claims he acquired an earworm from a newspaper jingle. Some of the addictive verses from the jingle were:
“Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare.
Punch, brothers! Punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare.”
This jingle drove Twain crazy, until he jokingly describes how he passed it on to an unfortunate acquaintance. It is a good thing he died 54 years before Walt Disney opened his “It’s a Small World” attraction— Twain would have never survived it.
In 1997 humorist Dave Barry wrote the “Book of Bad Songs”, which summarizes his survey of the world’s worst songs. Barry contends that bad song lyrics and jingles for products that no longer exist, are the two things that we are most likely to remember, while our ATM passwords and the names of our children are assigned relatively low priority by our perverse memory. Barry warns that his book might even “put bad songs into your head”. He suggests that the book is best deployed as a psychological weapon and given to enemies.
I believe that I once had the winner of Barry’s worse song survey,MacArthurPark, stuck in my head for a week. I distinctly remember humming about a cake left out in the rain and how long it took to bake it.
Earworm songs are always familiar to the victim and usually are not perceived as a significant problem. However, in a 2005 survey 7.5% of people did report having their least favorite song stuck in their head on occasion. In this more recent study, Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart ” replacedMacArthurParkas the most despised song.
Most of the time earworms end within a day or so, but they are thought to be more difficult to suppress by people who are most into music. Women and men experience earworms with about the same frequency, but they seem to last a little longer for women. Usually the songs are a catchy tune that you may have liked at some point in the past, but they may become highly annoying from the sheer repetition. They especially seem to appear when people are alone and bored.
Earworms are a type of intrusive involuntary imagery, which can include spontaneous pictures, smells, and tastes. Auditory intrusions, however, seem to be more common than those from other sensory modalities. Some scientists believe that earworms may be a mild form of auditory hallucinations. Others think they may be the normal side effect of the memory consolidation process. Famous neurologist Oliver Sacks theorizes that they may just be the natural consequence of having our brains constantly bombarded by music.
James Kellaris, a marketing professor at theUniversityofCincinnati, has extensively studied earworms and views them as a “cognitive itch.” Kellaris, believes that certain music has unusual qualities, such as repetitiveness, simplicity, or unexpectedness, that hook the brain’s attention. The brain tries to process this irritating stimulation by repeating it, which only makes matters worse– like scratching an insect bite. However, since virtually any song may be an earworm for some people, Kellaris now believes that the phenomenon probably results from an interaction of song properties and individual traits.
Kellaris conducted a 2003 survey to determine his own earworm “Playlist From Hell” and he included commercial jingles, as well as songs. After idiosyncratic earworms, the most common ones cited were: 1. Chili’s (Baby Back Ribs), 2. Who Let the Dogs Out?, 3. We Will Rock You, 4. Kit-Kat bar jingle (Gimme a break), 5. TheMission Impossible Theme, 6. YMCA, 7. Whomp, There It Is, 8. The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and 9. It’s a Small World After All.
People have adopted a variety of different techniques to eliminate or suppress earworms including; substituting a new tune, passing it on, distraction, listening to the earworm, discussing it, or simply waiting for it to pass. I looked up the lyrics to “Time After Time” and was surprised to find that the verses I was hearing in my head weren’t exactly the same as the actual song. I also listened to the song, but it didn’t go away, although the lyrics mysteriously corrected themselves. Some people believe that the more attention you give to an earworm, the more resistant it is to leaving.
Kellaris’ website says that there is a common myth that some tunes (like the Flintstones’ Theme) can serve as an “eraser song” that can eliminate earworms. It may distract the individual, but there is no evidence of any true “eraser effect”. And there is even the danger the eraser song will become a brand new earworm, itself.
I don’t believe learning about earworms has helped me at all, but “Time After Time” has finally faded from my brain. I am not sure how I did it, but something, (from the, town ofBedrock), is now telling me that, “I’ll never have that recipe again, oh nooo!”