Why That Song Gets Stuck In Your Head

Mar 12, 2012

Chances are, you've fallen victim to earworms — pesky songs or melodies that get stuck in your head and just won't get out.

Research suggests that there are psychological reasons why some songs are more likely to stick, including memory triggers, emotional states, and even stress. Some researchers hope to better understand why this happens and figure out what, if anything, music memory can teach psychologists about how to treat patients dealing with memory loss.

NPR's John Donvan speaks with psychologist Vicky Williamson about the reasons some songs get stuck in our heads, and the implications it has for understanding human memory.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan.

We have all been victims of earworms. OK. This is not as bad as it sounds. In fact, we think this is going to be fun because an earworm is not literally a worm that gets into your ear. It is the name given to a song or a tune that gets stuck in your head, and you can't get it to stop playing. And yes, earworms of this nature can be annoying. But can they also possibly be educational? We ask because psychologists are trying to learn why this happens. They're trying to figure out what it is in the brain that triggers earworms. And they're trying to figure out what music memory can teach us about the human brain. We're going to talk to a psychologist who's doing research on just this topic in just a moment.

But first, we would like to hear from you. Very simply, the question is what song is stuck in your head and why? The number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Now, Vicky Williamson is a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London where her research and teaching focuses on music and cognition and memory. And she joins us now from her home in London, England. Vicky, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DR. VICKY WILLIAMSON: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

DONVAN: So it's a pleasure to have you here. And we're asking everyone who's listening to let us know what the song is for them. But what's the big picture on this? Do we know why songs get stuck in our heads?

WILLIAMSON: Not really. It is strange. Research on earworms is very much in its infancy, but we do know a lot about musical memory and why - we're learning more about how it's so powerful for us.

DONVAN: And how did you get into the earworm business?


WILLIAMSON: Yeah. It's a strange business to be in, right?


WILLIAMSON: Well, my research group studies music in the brain, and we've spent a few years studying people who were born tune-deaf.

DONVAN: Mm-hmm.

WILLIAMSON: One of my interesting findings was I was complaining about having a song stuck in my head, and lot of the music (unintelligible) in people who were born tune-deaf, they didn't know what I was talking about. And I thought, well, that's interesting. How come in our earworms - is it just me? So we did a little bit of research, and we found out it was a really interesting phenomenon. But there wasn't really much outcome, so we decided we would we were going to (unintelligible).

DONVAN: So what's the potential? I know you don't know because you're doing the studies now, but where do you think - what kinds of things do you think that research on why these things get stuck in our head can reveal about the way our brains work and the way memory works? What are your hopes?

WILLIAMSON: Good question. So yeah, my big dreams and hopes, right? So it's an interesting everyday phenomenon. It happens to at least 90 percent of people once a week, get a tune stuck in their head.

DONVAN: Mm-hmm.

WILLIAMSON: And it's a very effortless form of memory, so we're not even trying, and this music comes into our head and repeats. And it's very often very veridical, meaning it's a very good representation of the original tune that we're remembering. So my big hope is that that can tell us something about the automaticity(ph) of musical memory and its power as a tool for learning. So imagine if we could recall facts that we wanted as easily as we can bring new ones to mind without even trying.

DONVAN: Hmm. It's interesting. My 12-year-old daughter is in school, and she has an assignment where she needs to learn the capitals of every country in Central and South America. And it's all been set to music. And it took about 45 minutes to get the whole class to kind of learn everything in one run-through. I don't know on the second day if they still had it, but I think they probably did. You...

WILLIAMSON: I think a lot of them will probably have it forever.


DONVAN: More than they want. It'll be a song stuck in their head. You actually - your research - I know we need to be delicate about your actual findings for an interesting reason. You don't want everybody out there to know what are the most stuck-in-your-head-able songs because if people know, then your feeling is that would actually influence their - what songs get stuck in people's heads further down the road. So I'm not going to ask you to list the songs that your research shows you are the most stuckable(ph), but I do want to tell people that they can actually contribute to your research, that you have a website and you can log in and tell people what's going on in their heads?

WILLIAMSON: Absolutely. That is the main reason that I don't want to contaminate everybody's very natural songs, because we know one of the ways in which earworms can happen is people mentioning a song, and then it gets stuck in your head. So the fact that I know this and it's my own research, it would be pretty bad of me to then do it in myself.


DONVAN: All right. Well, let's do some very quick on-the-fly research now and listen to what some of our listeners are saying. Allan in Dillon, South Carolina. Hi, Allan, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.



ALLAN: I just found that song that's been in my head is Steve Miller Band, "Abracadabra," and it's pretty, pretty terrible song. But what I've noticed, the songs that I think are obnoxious tends to stick in my head better than songs that I actually enjoy.

DONVAN: Really?

ALLAN: I'm remembering those lyrics.

DONVAN: There's something about being irritated that sticks with you, it sounds like. Can you hum a few bars for us so that for people who don't know all the songs? And I'm going to ask listeners if you're brave enough to just whistle or hum a tune or two so that we know what we're talking about. So, Allan, you're on.

ALLAN: You want me to sing it?

DONVAN: A little bit. Fear not.

ALLAN: (Singing) Abra abra cadabra. I want to reach out and grab you.


DONVAN: All right. Allan, thank you. Thank you for going first. We really appreciate it.

ALLAN: Thank you.

DONVAN: Donovan, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DONOVAN: Hi. How are you?

DONVAN: We're good. We're good. What's the song that's in your head?

DONOVAN: I have the "Sesame Street" theme song stuck in my head.

DONVAN: And you do right now or that's one that's there for you a lot of the time?

DONOVAN: It was all last week. I actually mentioned the phrase earworm, and then I teach school, so I passed it on to some of my students. And they came back the next day and were, like, "Sesame Street" is still in my head.

DONVAN: Well...

DONOVAN: And I just...


DONVAN: Yeah. I wonder, if that's - Vicky Williamson, if that has something to do with it being a childhood song? Is there anything about songs from childhood sticking with us a long time?

WILLIAMSON: Possibly. I mean, simplicity is the one the elements that we're looking into. It does seem that majority of the earworms that people report are relatively simple. But it can't be the whole story because I've got people reporting the whole symphonies being stuck in their head, so it does vary, very much, from the person to person. But definitely, kids songs - one thing about earworms is in being repeated a lot, so I get many, many great parents who have listened to too many children introduction songs or learning songs, and they heard them 30, 40, 50 hundred times and they're stuck as a result.

DONVAN: Is there any possibility that your research will - when it's completed will ultimately the allow the music industry to reverse engineer a hit song by figuring out what the elements are and then sticking them on to a song and having a hit?

WILLIAMSON: Well, I've always said that it can't be, possibly, that simple, and the perfect example of that is your first caller there, because one thing the music industry does not want to produce is a song that the vast majority of people think is obnoxious and annoying. So it's more important, I'm sure, to come up with a hit song that people enjoy, therefore, they're going to spend their hard-earned money going to see the artist or buying the album or whatever. It's far more than it's important to make a song that just simply sticks.

DONVAN: All right. I'm going to confess to something. I'm going to confess to one of my earworms, but it's circumstantial and it goes like this.


DONVAN: So this is Carly Simon, her version of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" from the movie "Heartburn." And the scene in this movie takes place when Meryl Streep, at the very end of the movie, grabs her kids and goes out to the airport and walks across the tarmac and gets onto a plane and flies back home. And every time I'm at that particular airport walking across the tarmac, I realize as I step onto the plane that I'm singing this song - or whistling this song to myself. And I've never - I never plan on this or intend to. And once I finally realized that I did this all the time, I tried to figure out where it came from. And then I saw the movie, years later, and realized that I picked it up from the movie. So my question in this illustration is to ask, are some of these things circumstantial? Are - do you find that in certain situations that certain things prompt certain songs to come back?

WILLIAMSON: Absolutely. I mean, that's an absolutely fantastic example. I have a whole collection of those where just being in a particular situation triggers a - it triggers an earworm. So you got to imagine memory like falling of dominoes. So anything can set off a trigger that sets down a line of dominoes. And at some point, you've laid down in that memory trace a song that's releases memory itself. So just by being in the situation or being with a friend that you once associated with a song or seeing an artist that you associate with a particular song - it needs not even be their song - or seeing a film can, therefore, trigger your original memory of that situation and the song that was attached because it falls like the rest of the dominos.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Tom from Circleville, Ohio. Hi, Tom. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

TOM: Hi. Thanks for having me on. It's "Green Acres."

DONVAN: Oh, no.

TOM: Eddie Albert and Zsa Zsa Gabor. And when she was talking about a trigger, it hit me like a slap in the face. It's when I'm stressed out is when that whole song goes through me.

DONVAN: Give us a little bit of it.


TOM: Yeah. (Singing) Green acres is the place to be. Farm living is the life for me.

DONVAN: And it's stress...

TOM: (Singing) Land spreading out so far and wide. Keep Manhattan, but give me that countryside. I could sing the whole song.

DONVAN: Oh, Tom, I so wanted to give you an out by interrupting you - and I apologize. That was terrific. But you say it's a stress thing for you?

TOM: It is a stress thing for me. Yes, when I'm stressed out, you know, like, I have to meet at the deadline or, you know, I'm doing paperwork, and it will just come into my head. And it just drives me nuts.

DONVAN: Oh, because I was going to ask you, does it bring relief to your stress, but it sounds like it's the opposite.

TOM: Yeah, yeah. Well, yeah, it does in a way, but I go, oh my, god. Why am I doing this? But, you know, it goes - my wife has even heard me singing it while I have been doing some laborious work in the yard. She's, why are you singing that? I have no idea.


DONVAN: All right, Tom, thanks very much for your story.

TOM: All right, you're welcome.

DONVAN: Here's Jessie from - I'm sorry, Norm in Paducah, Kentucky. Hi, Norm. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

NORM: Hi. How are you?

DONVAN: Good, thank you.

NORM: Cool. Well, I don't really have a specific song that's stuck in my head, but I'm a musician, and if I'm working on something, it is going to be stuck in my head like trying to work something up. And I constantly, during the day, have scales, and like patterns of scales that are constantly going through my head, and there's a physical component to it too because I do the fingerings from my instrument at the same time, so...

DONVAN: Wow, so you're acting out music as well. It's in your head now.

NORM: Yeah, I guess so.

DONVAN: All right, Norm, thanks for your call. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. Jessie in Columbus, Ohio. You have an earworm, Jessie?

JESSIE: Yes. Mine's "Girl from Ipanema" by Astrud Gilberto, I think (unintelligible).

DONVAN: Yeah, yeah.

JESSIE: Yeah, it's a...

DONVAN: Well, remind us with a little rendition, can you?

JESSIE: Certainly. It goes (Singing) Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking and ta-na-na-na-na-na-na-na. The worst thing about it is that I don't even know all the lyrics, so all day I'm just - like I get to that part and then I just hum it, and I feel like an idiot.

DONVAN: You sounded great, Jessie. So - but do you have a sense of what the trigger is? Is it - or is there every day or every minute of your life in which case...

JESSIE: I think, no, it's been in and out of my life for like the last week because I heard it on YouTube and it's like - it just sounds like no other song I've ever heard before, so I've just been humming it a lot. I think it's just because it's so much different than all the other songs.

DONVAN: All right. Jessie, thanks very much for sharing that. Vicky Williamson, you know, you said that there's nothing like hearing an earworm mention that - to plant one in our own heads and therefore, you're very cautious about sharing what's on your list. But I want to know, you hear people's earworms all the time. Do they get - do they invade your head? Do you have a concert going on in there?

WILLIAMSON: Yes, I have "Girl from Ipanema" right now.

DONVAN: Yes, so do I.


DONVAN: That's why I was asking.

WILLIAMSON: It's tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

DONVAN: Yeah. Do you ever look into how to get rid of an earworm?

WILLIAMSON: I'm looking into that right now, so I'm - I've been collecting earworms for about three years now, and I just started collecting cures. So people were quite spontaneously telling me about either musical strategy, so magic songs that make them sing to get rid of the earworm and does themselves get stuck, or strategies like going for a run or doing a crossword seemed to help. So I've been collecting cures, and I'm going to study them just as well as I'm studying the earworm.

DONVAN: Can you share one of the magical songs that will get rid of earworms?

WILLIAMSON: I'm trying to think. They tend to be slow, which is an interesting characteristic. Some people think that the British national anthem sung quite slow is good for getting rid of earworms.

DONVAN: All right. Let's bring in Jamie from Orange Park, Florida. Hi, Jamie, you're TALK OF THE NATION.

JAMIE: Hello.

DONVAN: Hi. What's your song?

JAMIE: Back in ninth grade, our algebra teacher taught us the quadratic formula or the quadratic equation using a song. And when I went back to school and I went to algebra again, that song immediately popped back up into my head, and now I'm teaching it to my older son who is also learning algebra. Really cute.

DONVAN: Oh. How does it go?

JAMIE: (Singing) It's X equals negative B plus or minus the square root of B squared minus 4AC all over two A.

DONVAN: So I have to picture you strolling down the street whistling quadratic equations to yourself?

JAMIE: I mean, sometimes it can - because it's really catchy and you can just keep it going and going and going in your head.


DONVAN: All right.

JAMIE: Especially if you are actually doing the quadratic formula.


DONVAN: It sounds like it's bought richness to your life, so that's a good song. Jamie, thanks for your call.

JAMIE: I thank you.

DONVAN: All right. Jill in Oklahoma City, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JILL: Hi. Well, first of all, I have to say thanks to Allan because now I have his song stuck in my head.


JILL: But...

WILLIAMSON: You see, you see the danger?


DONVAN: Yeah. Have to go for a run.

JILL: But I wanted to say when I was little, my grandmother sang to me "You Are My Sunshine," which she had sung to my mother and, you know, my mother sang it to me at bedtime. And then, for a while, well, for - until she passed away, my grandmother actually called me sunshine. And as a new mother, having, you know, a whole, you know, all kinds of songs that I could pull from and I had gotten all of these collections of lullabies and all of that stuff, when faced with a baby that, you know, was crying and was, you know, needed some kind of soothing, that is and continues to be the only song I can think of in those stressful situations.

So that song has been - and now my son, when he's going - and who is now nine, when he's going to bed, that's what he wants or that's the first thing that kind of comes to his mind. So it's like - and it's been a four-generation long earworm in our family.

DONVAN: Jill, thanks very much, and this looks like there's a little bit of family pattern there, Vicky Williamson, and something else for you to look into. You are a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths University of London. Your research and teaching focuses on music cognition and memory, and you joined us from your home in London, England. Vicky Williamson, thanks so much for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.

WILLIAMSON: Thank you for inviting. I had a great time.

DONVAN: And this TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington.


FREDDIE MERCURY: Buddy, you're a boy. Make a big noise, playing in the street, gonna be a big man some day. You got mud on your face. You big disgrace. Kicking your can all over the place. Singing we will, we will rock you. We will, we will rock you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.