by Medha Madhav
Think of a time when you had a tune or song stuck in your head. Was it catchy to the point it would continuously repeat? Did you feel the urge to hum or sing it? If so, you are not alone in experiencing what is called an “earworm.”
Earworms are cognitive occurrences where a tune involuntarily repeats itself in one’s head.2 The term earworm is derived from the German word “Ohrwurm[ohr-vurm],” which translates to “musical itch” in English.4 Approximately 90% of people in a survey indicated that they experienced earworms.5 Earworms can inform us on how music creators maximize the retention of their tunes after listening as well as the parts of the brain involved in processing auditory information.
In a study of 44 people (ages 17 to 46), eight non-mainstream songs were selected to be played among the subject group. The test subjects were asked to rank the songs by traits associated with earworms. The study chose to utilize choruses from songs considered non-mainstream to observe changes in the subjects’ perception of the music between the first and second time listening. Non-mainstream songs were used to maximize the novelty of the music. The next day, subjects had to complete serial recall tasks to measure short-term memory prior to the second session. After that, choruses were played for a time block, followed by a block of silence. During the silence, 52% of the subjects reported earworms. The researchers concluded that choruses have a significant effect on the causation of earworms. This explains why earworm-causing songs typically root back to choruses in them.3
How about the parts of your brain involved with earworms? Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) helps us dive deeper into the physiological aspect of earworms. The temporal lobe in the brain contains a small subsection, the auditory cortex, which is responsible for taking in auditory information, such as musical tunes or voices. Connections are made between the auditory cortex and hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for memory, retention, and learning. Other parts of the brain, such as the ventral striatum and amygdala, are also involved in processing auditory information. The ventral striatum is the portion of the brain that informs the individual of auditorial reward, while the amygdala is responsible for processing events of fear and sadness.1 If you have experienced an earworm of a song you perceive as “sad” while feeling down owe to memories associated with the song having melancholic connotations, and your brain resorts to the networks already formed with the amygdala. On the flip side, an earworm of a song you perceive as “happy” or “enjoyable”owe to memories associated with the song having rewarding implications, identified by networks formed with the ventral striatum.5
The next time you have a tune stuck in your head, you might think of how your favorite artists strategize their compositions so your brain is hooked onto their tunes. Although earworms may be considered an annoyance, parts of your brain do more than allow that “worm” to squirm about. Their collaboration with each other is important to your brain’s processing of auditory information.
1.Baxter, M. G., & Croxson, P. L. (2012, December 14). Facing the role of the amygdala in emotional information processing – PNAS. PNAS. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1219167110
2.John F. Kennedy Center. (2023). Your Brain on Music: Earworms. John F. Kennedy Center. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/media-and-interactives/media/music/your-brain-on-music/your-brain-on-music/your-brain-on-music-earworms/
3.Killingly, C., & Lacherez, P. (2023, January 9). The song that never ends: The effect of repeated exposure on the development of an earworm. Sage Journals. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/17470218231152368
4.OnMusic Dictionary. OnMusic Dictionary – Term. (2016, May 21). Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://dictionary.onmusic.org/terms/695-chorus
5.Walsh, C., Harvard Gazette. (2021, December 14). Harvard scientist on why that song is stuck in your head. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/12/harvard-scientist-on-why-that-song-is-stuck-in-your-head/
Designua. (n.d.). Limbic System. Retrieved from https://www.shutterstock.com.