Ear Worms – 3 minute read


So, what exactly is an Ear Worm?

What is an Ear Worm?

According to Wikipedia (uh oh, don’t tell my masters professor I’m quoting Wikipedia) an ear worm is “a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person’s mind after it is no longer playing”.

First, let me clarify this statement with the fact that I love my husband dearly, but we have an odd (yet loving) way of torturing each other; just as he leaves for work in the morning, I hum the most annoying song I can think of.

I’ve even googled ‘ear worm songs’ so I can find something truly catchy (yet sooo annoying). Then, as he leaves for the day, I laugh to myself knowing what awaits him. Sure enough, 30 minutes later I’ll receive a text message “thanking me” sarcastically for the song now stuck in his head.

Feel free to try this on your own loved one – in fact, here’s a list of songs I have previously tortured hubby with:

  • I Don’t Feel Like Dancing – Scissor Sisters
  • Single Ladies – Beyonce (All the single ladies, ALL the single ladies, ALL THE SINGLE…you get the idea)

Now on to the songs that he has tortured me back with:

  • The Coconut Song – Smokey Mountain (check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0AOGeqOnFY)
  • Peaches – Presidents of the United States – you know the one “Moving to the country, gonna eat a lot peaches” over (and over) again!

But why do we get them; what makes those particular songs stick in our head and why are they so annoyingly catchy?

Some basic criteria that helps make a good “ear worm song”:

  • Fast paced tempo
  • Easy to remember
  • Catchy melody
  • Unique rift (which rules out most songs after 2015…the following research confirms this)

The American Psychological Association researchers collected data from 3,000 people over 3 years and found that these were the

Top 10 Ear Worm Songs:

  1. Bad Romance – Lady Gaga (in fact she features 3 times in the top 9)
  2. Can’t Get You Out of My Head – Kylie Minogue (OH, the irony in this song name)!
  3. Don’t Stop Believing – Journey
  4. Somebody That I Used to Know – Gotye
  5. Moves Like Jagger – Maroon 5
  6. California Gurls – Katy Perry
  7. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
  8. Alejandro – Lady Gaga
  9. Poker Face – Lady Gaga
  10. Baby Shark (well this is just my personal addition because it’s stuck in my head right now!)

Oh, and here are some fun facts:

According to Beaman & Williams (2010)

  • Songs with lyrics are more common than those without
  • If you like the song, you’re less likely to be irritated by it, even if it is stuck in your head on repeat
  • It is usually 15 – 30 seconds in length from that song
  • Ear worms are more common with people who are interested in music
  • Memories can trigger certain ear worm songs as they may be linked to a location, a smell, or even something visual. Then the song is trapped in the brain (for what seems like forever)
  • Prevalent in 99% of the population


The limbic system is the part of the brain responsible for this reaction. It deals with emotions, memory and enforces behaviour (Jin and Jengi, 2015) and is the part of the brain that stimulates the ear worms.

When a powerful new memory is being formed, there is an increased firing of cells in the brain, causing overall stronger memory formations. It is thought the limbic system integrates this firing with a new memory or emotion. Whatever stimulated that increased firing in the brain initially, can retrigger that memory, that emotion, or the song you were hearing at the time the memory was formed.

How Do I Stop Ear Worms?

  1. Take on a New Challenge: Engage yourself in a challenging, distracting brain activity (don’t attempt a Sudoku, you’ll end up more frustrated when you get the very last square and realise you got it all wrong)
  1. Read A Book: this will help you distract yourself
  2. Sing A Different Song: Williamson, Liikkanen, Jakubowski & Stewart (2014), found Happy birthday and God Save the Queen are two of the top ear worm cure songs.
  1. Chew Some Gum: Beaman, Powell & Rapley (2015), found that chewing gum interferes with recollections from verbal memory and scanning of familiar melodies. That helps to reduce both voluntary and involuntary musical thoughts. Basically, when a song is stuck in our head, our brain compels us to sing and make a noise, even if you don’t want to. By chewing gum you’re distracting that part of your brain by using your mouth for another purpose. When the mouth is busy chewing, it blocks the sub-vocal component of the auditory short term memory associated with generating and manipulating auditory and musical images.
  1. Listen to the Entire Song: Ear worms tend to be 15-30 seconds of a song. Williamson, Liikkanen, Jakubowski & Stewart (2014), found that one of the most effective cures was listening to the whole song. By engaging with the annoying piece of music, rather than just the repetitive part, tended to get rid of the ear worm.
  1. Just Ignore It: I know, I know – that advice is as good as telling someone to calm down when they are anything but calm…
  1. Distract Yourself: The most effective distractions are musical or verbal, such as singing a different song or reciting a poem. By activating the part of the brain that is involved in working memory (short term memory), you can break that cyclic loop. Basically, if you fill that part of the brain with something else, there isn’t enough room for the “ear worm to grow” (Brown, 2015)

So, there you have it. A fun fact to read on your Sunday afternoon that will either save yourself the aggravation of having a song stuck in your head, or do what I do….. Now that you know how to rid yourself of them, use your knowledge to torture others if they left a wet towel on the floor.

You can thank me later 😉

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