What It Means When You Can't Get A Song Out Of Your Head

A catchy song can take hold of us and follow us around throughout the day much like our own shadow. Think back to 2007 when you were undoubtedly walking around with Rihanna's "Umbrella, ella, ella ... " stuck in your head at some point during the day. Try as we might, it can feel near impossible to get a sing-songy tune out of our head once it's burrowed its way in. Much like a worm might burrow itself into the earth, if a song has burrowed itself into your brain, it means that you're experiencing what's known as an "earworm."

Researchers from a 2011 Finnish questionnaire study published in Psychology of Music found that nearly 90% of respondents experienced earworms, also referred to as "stuck song syndrome," one or more times per week. Science shows that earworms tend to follow the same formula. A 2023 research article published in Music & Science notes that these catchy songs tend to be lyrical rather than instrumental, are usually faster in pace, and contain periodic changes in the melody that capture our brain's attention. Additionally, earworms tend to have a simple, recurring hook or chorus, which is often the chunk that gets played on mental repeat rather than a particular verse.

The role of memory and emotion in earworms

The science behind earworms seems to stand at the intersection of auditory processing, emotion, and memory, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, a professor and director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, told TIME that earworms can be triggered unconsciously even if it's been years since we last heard the song. Such was the case for Margulis who recalls the day she visited her child's pediatrician's office and saw a poster featuring a person that reminded her of a character in an old Disney movie. Suddenly, a song from the soundtrack was on loop in her head.

Alternatively, some experts say that stress can create an easy in for earworms, as clinging to something repetitive and familiar can calm an overwhelmed mind. An idle mind can also be an earworm's playground, such as when our attention has drifted while mindlessly cleaning. Research also suggests that those with certain mental health conditions characterized by repetitive thoughts or actions may also be more prone to earworms. While more study is needed, such conditions are thought to include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or those involving ruminating thoughts. In more severe cases, earworms may be linked with stroke, cancer, epilepsy, or migraine.

Top songs that tend to get stuck in our head

Aside from looking into the science of earworms, experts have also examined which hit songs people tend to get stuck in their heads. In a 2017 U.K. study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, more than 3,000 survey responses revealed the top nine songs most frequently identified by participants as earworms. Appearing three times on the list was Lady Gaga, with her popular song "Bad Romance" at number one. Other songs mentioned included Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger," Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," and (ironically) "Can't Get You Out of My Head" by Kylie Minogue.

Lead study author Dr. Kelly Jakubowski of Durham University commented on the findings in a press release, telling the American Psychological Association, "Our findings show that you can, to some extent, predict which songs are going to get stuck in people's heads based on the song's melodic content. This could help aspiring song-writers or advertisers write a jingle everyone will remember for days or months afterwards." While earworms may work in favor of advertisers, they can sometimes be a nuisance to the rest of us. If you find that a song has taken up residence in your head, don't fight it. Here's what to do instead.

What to do if you can't get a song out of your head

Instead of getting held up on one snippet, TIME reports that letting the whole song play out in its entirety can help work the earworm out of your system. Alternatively, redirect your mouth's attention. Many of us tend to sing or hum along with a sticky song, whether out loud or in our heads. By popping in a piece of gum or eating a snack, our mouth is now focused on chewing rather than singing.

If all else fails, try playing a different song altogether. In a 2014 study published in PLOS ONE, researchers gathered over 1,000 reports from people in Finland and the U.K. to determine how people responded to and coped with earworms. While many people simply gave in to the joy of it, others sought out distractions. This included what the researchers deemed "cure tunes." Out of more than 60 songs named, six came up repeatedly. With two mentions each came "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel, "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin, and the theme song to "The A-Team." With three votes each was "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club and the widely-known "Happy Birthday." With the most mentions, "God Save the Queen" by Thomas Arne raked in six mentions. Perhaps the next time you're dealing with a pesky earworm, try cranking up another jam and dance it out!