For the past few weeks, I’ve had an annoying jingle playing over and over in my mind. I wake up in the morning and start humming it. I sit in my car, and it pops back into my brain.
Scientists refer to these repetitive ditties as involuntary musical imagery (INMI). They’re also known as earworms, a direct translation from the German Ohrwurm, meaning a song that gets stuck in your head.
Earworms aren’t a new phenomenon. Mark Twain used one as a plot device in his 1876 story, “A Literary Nightmare.”
According to Dr. James Kellaris at the University of Cincinnati, 98 percent of us have earworms every week. Men and women experience them equally, but women’s earworms last longer and are perceived as more irritating.
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“Certain pieces of music may have properties that excite an abnormal reaction in the brain,” Dr. Kellaris wrote.
As our brains try to process the notes, they play them again and again — adding to the agitation.
Dr. Kellaris cites three key features that increase the likelihood of causing earworms:
▪ The song is overly repetitive in tune, lyrics or both.
▪ The tune is extremely simple or the lyrics are predictable and undemanding.
▪ The song contains an incongruous or unexpected element, as in a catchy rhythm or key change. For instance, “America” from “West Side Story” has a contagious beat that lingers long after the music has stopped.
▪ The song does not resolve. Instead, it goes on and on. Think waiting in line at Disneyland and hearing “It’s a Small World After All.”
Of course, advertisers have been taking full advantage of earworms since the advent of audio programming. Media historians credit the “Have You Tried Wheaties?” radio jingle for keeping the breakfast cereal from being discontinued. The first television earworm is attributed to Colgate-Palmolive for Ajax in 1948.
Earworms are most common when we’re doing something mundane, according to Dr. Ira Hyman, a music psychologist at Western Washington University.
“Something we can do automatically like driving or walking means you are not using all of your cognitive resources, so there is plenty of space left for that internal jukebox playing in your head,” he said.
Dr. Hyman discovered that doing puzzles, such as anagrams, math problems or Sudoku, silences earworms. But he cautioned against attempting puzzles that were too difficult. They caused subjects to zone out and start replaying songs in their heads.
Linda Lewis Griffith’s column is special to The Tribune. She is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit www.lindalewisgriffith.com.
Tips for stopping earworms
- Sing another song. Select a song you like, but one that’s not too catchy.
- Meditate. You’ll quiet your thoughts and decrease your anxiety.
- Chew gum. For some people, chewing gum interferes with the ability to “hear” music in their heads.
- Visualize yourself changing your mental channel to another song. This helps you claim control of your thoughts.
- Look up the lyrics. Forgotten lyrics can be frustrating and cause you to keep thinking about them. Look them up online. Memorize them if you can.
- Relax. The earworm will eventually pass.