Unpacking the earworm: What makes some songs get stuck in your head? We speak to an expert

Woman listening to music (Photo: Getty Images)
Woman listening to music (Photo: Getty Images)

Cape Town – We all do it. Listen to the same song repeatedly until we're sick of it. Or someone says one line of a song and we sing it – in our heads or out loud – for the rest of the day. 

In fact, it's such a global trend that streaming service Spotify created two playlists, based on your listening habits, titled On Repeat and Repeat Rewind.

To unpack what our brains do when we have an earworm that's burrowed in and taken up residence in our minds, we spoke to Elizabeth Margulis of Princeton University.

WHO IS ELIZABETH MARGULIS, AND WHAT DOES SHE DO? 

Elizabeth approaches music from the combined perspectives of music theory and cognitive science. Her book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind received the 2014 Wallace Berry Award from the Society for Music Theory and the 2015 ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award. Her latest book, The Psychology of Music: A Very Short Introduction was published in 2018. Her cross-cultural research on narrative perceptions of music is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Her work has appeared in journals ranging from the Journal of Music Theory to the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. She is President of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition (SMPC).

She has served in the past on the Board of Directors and as Treasurer. Before coming to Princeton, she was a distinguished professor at the University of Arkansas. She has also served as a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge in the UK and as a faculty member at Northwestern University.

CHECK OUT OUR INTERVIEW WITH ELIZABETH ABOUT EARWORMS HERE: 

Spotify has recently released a playlist where people can listen to songs that they've already listened to over and over again. What makes listening to the same music, repeatedly, so pleasurable? 

Repetition can encourage more participatory engagement with a song as people tend to want to move/dance and sing along. As the music repeats, we tune into different and sometimes more rewarding attributes of the sound. We also often listen to these songs in multiple contexts and because of that, they start to become a part of our identity, and we start to draw our past experiences into our present listening. 

Based on these phenomena, Spotify has recently added personalised playlists - On Repeat and Repeat Rewind. On Repeat is a playlist that helps you keep track of what tracks you have been playing over the past 30 days. The playlist is a great combination of all the music you love, no matter what artist or genre. 

Repeat and Rewind are playlists created for you to reminisce with the songs you fell in love within the not-so-far-off past. It includes tracks that you played over a month ago for you to rediscover. Songs update every five days. Your songs will never appear on both playlists at the same time.

HERE'S OUR OWN PERSONALISED EXAMPLE OF THE PLAYLIST: 

Why do some songs turn into earworms? While others, obviously don't. 

Songs tend to crop up as earworms when you've heard them recently and repeatedly. It is also when songs feature tunes with an optimal mixture of predictability and surprise that they tend to get stuck in your head. The most common way for this to happen is when you're engaging in a task that doesn't require a lot of attention and a particular song is playing in the background, there is more chance of it getting stuck in your head. 

What's the best thing to do when you have an earworm that won't get out of your head? 

Some research suggests that chewing gum can dislodge an earworm and other people suggest thinking about a different song to get the first one out of your head.

As a distinguished academic, who is also a published author, what songs do you listen to when you have to focus or write? 

Honestly, I really can't listen to music when I have to focus or write. However, I do enjoy going to concerts. I do that often. 

What was the first song that you remember getting stuck in your head? Or one that continually does? 

My family loves to listen to American Funk group Vulfpeck, and one of us always has a tune from Birds of a Feather (We Rock Together) stuck in our head.

Which is catchier? Jingles or full songs? 

Both Jingles and full songs are catchy. Earworm episodes, even when drawn from full songs, often seem more like jingles. They're usually made up of a short tune that loops and loops as if stuck.

Can instrumental songs become earworms? 

Absolutely! People who listen to classical music a lot often report melodies getting stuck in their heads.