Can’t Get That Song Out of Your Head? Here’s Why

    November 15, 2011
    Josh Wolford

Let me tell you a little story about how I got my least favorite Led Zeppelin song stuck in my head for a little over three days.

When I was in middle school, I bought a cheap electric guitar. Not because I thought it would make me cooler, or more social accepted if I played an instrument (I already played the trumpet in the band, so I had that covered). And I certainly didn’t think that all the middle school girls would throw themselves at me because I could play three chords and a Nirvana solo. I sincerely just wanted to play my favorite songs – with a tad bit of distortion.

Except you quickly find when you pick up the guitar that all of your favorite songs are just too damn hard. So you settle. And so I settled for an easier riff – Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker.” One of my friends, who was a surprisingly good adolescent drummer, heard me play and our first two-man band was born.

Fast forward 12 years, and I see that friend (who I haven’t see in years) post about drumming on Facebook. And that’s all it took. Neurons fired, brain juices flowed, and suddenly I had my least favorite Led Zeppelin song stuck in my head.

And it was there for what seemed like eternity.

According to a new study by the British journal Psychology of Music, I fell victim to the 2nd cause of earworms.

The study collected data from 604 people, and the researchers sorted through the responses and came up with four different reasons that people get songs stuck in their heads.

  1. Exposure.  This means exactly what it looks like.  If you hear a song recently, or hear it multiple times in a short period of time, then it’s more likely to become stuck in your head.
  2. Memory Triggers.  This is what happened to me in my story above.  Seeing a person or visiting a particular location – anything that triggers a memory can get a song stuck in your head, considering that there is a song associated with the person, place, or situation.
  3. Affective States.  Feeling a certain way when you hear a song – whether it be happy or stressed can lodge that song firmly in your head.
  4. Low attention states.  You’re more likely to get an earworm when you’re not paying attention, daydreaming – basically not working very hard on anything.

The study also gives a scientific term to “getting a song stuck in your head” – Involuntary Musical Imagery, or INMI.

Victoria Williamson, the study’s author, suggests that if you want to rid your head of a particular song, try doing an activity that makes you focus like reading a book or doing a puzzle. Personally, I just listen to some Hall & Oates. Works every time.

A 2003 study at the University of Cincinnati identified the phenomenon and found that 98% of people experience earworms. That study found that the most common offender was or course different to each subject, but they found some songs that various subjects identified as particularly sticky.

Some of those songs included Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” the theme to Mission Impossible, the Kit Kat jingle, and “The lion sleeps tonight.”

What songs get stuck in your head on a regular basis? How do you get them out? Let us know in the comments.


Josh Wolford
Josh Wolford is a writer for WebProNews. He likes beer, Japanese food, and movies that make him feel weird afterward. Mostly beer. Follow him on Twitter: @joshgwolf Instagram: @joshgwolf Google+: Joshua Wolford StumbleUpon: joshgwolf