Earworms: When Music Gets Stuck in Your Head

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

We all (except, perhaps, any amusics out there) have experienced have experienced earworms: when a short bit of a song gets stuck in your head for an extended period of time. It can be for minutes, hours, or even days. It can wear on your nerves to the point that everything is irritable. And it just wont go away. This is particularly annoying when the song that is stuck is one you dislike, or even hate.

Anatomy of a Catchy Tune

The first question is this: What is it in a tune that makes our brain latch onto it the way it does? Sometimes repetition in a song can cause it. In Musicophila, Oliver Sacks writes about his Jewish upbringings and some of the songs that were sung. One song in particularly was quite repetitive.

Had Gadya (Aramic for one little goat). This was an accumulating and repetitive song [a] little phrase of six notes in a minor key would be sung (I counted!) forty-six times in the course of the song, and this repetition hammered it into my head.


However, beyond repetition. What makes a song catchy? Are there certain elements? Lyrics perhaps?

The answer is this: We dont really know. Earworms come in all genres, classical to metal, and many have no of these genres have no lyrics. There is nothing in a song that we point to and say, Aha! Thats why its stuck in my head. However, we can still look at the brain and see what its doing.


How we listen to music has changed in the last 150 years. It wasnt until the latter half of the 19th century that recorded music (or, for that matter) any sort of sound) became possible. Phonographs and record players became popular in the 20th century, but they were somewhat limited. Then came music on the radio. Just turn it on and let it play. Cars got radios, then tape decks. T.V. commercials and shows got music.

Then came portable music players such as the Walkman and iPod.  Now, people could listen to their music everywhere, at anytime. Our brains were being pounded my music from all sides. This goes back to the repetition angle of the whole thing. Since your brain is constantly getting hit with this stuff, wouldnt it make since that it would start repeating it to itself? Have you ever been in a boat (a big boat, not just a little speedboat)? If so you probably remember constant rocking. And, chances are, you felt like you were rocking after you got off.

Why Our Brains Do This

We have to remember this, our brain is still one of the biggest mysteries of the human body. To go back to something I said in a previous post, by trying to understand the brain, we are trying to make the brain comprehend itself. Thats a bit wacky isnt it?

We are creatures of repetition. Our heartbeat is a classic example. Always going, very rhythmic, systematic. When we miss beat, the whole body notices. People talk about the rhythm of life and, honestly, its not to far off. So it makes sense that something that becomes routine, may very well get caught by our brain

What about you? Do you have any particularly bad earworm stories? I would love to hear about them. Why dont you leave me a comment below!

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]