Hey, this’ll ruin your day: ”I’ve got the moves like Jagger.” Just consider those words for a moment. “I’ve got the moves like Jagger, moves like Jagger, ooo-wee-ooo…” The song is now lodged in your brain. It’ll be there for hours. There is no escape. You could trepan yourself with a Bowie knife and it’d still be there, ooo-wee-ooing round your cerebellum. It’s the ultimate earworm.
Maroon 5: Make it stop!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about earworms, or ‘stuck song syndrome’ – ever since I woke up one morning with an obscure Levellers song called ‘Julie’ blaring obnoxiously from a space somewhere between my ears. I hadn’t heard that song, or given it any consideration, in over 16 years. Never even liked it in the first place. Neither had I dreamt about someone called Julie, or heard it on the radio subconsciously while sleeping. Yet there it was. And there it stayed, all day.
I needed to find out: what is going on here? What is the physiological process, the chain reaction of synaptic connections, that makes a random melody take up residence inside your skull? Does everyone experience them the same way? Are some songs more… earwormy than others? If so, what is the key ingredient that gives certain melodies this incredible stickiness?
Very little proper scientific research has been done on the subject. In fact there’s only one academic studying it in any depth, and that’s Dr Vicky Williamson, a music psychologist and memory expert at Goldsmith’s College in London. She doesn’t claim to have ‘solved’ the mystery of earworms yet, but she’s gathered a lot of data, and has a good idea what conditions give rise to the phenomenon. With her help I’ve come up with the following factors.
Well, obviously. You hear a song enough times, it gets stuck in your head. However, while this might explain why that nightmarish “We buy any car” jingle keeps playing on your internal jukebox, it doesn’t explain my Levellers experience, since I hadn’t heard that song in yonks.
These triggers can be subtle, and are not generally registered by your conscious brain. Next time you experience an earworm, think back to things you might have seen or heard. Sometimes it’s amazingly puerile. I often get Sly & The Family Stone’s ‘Everyday People’ stuck in my head. Only recently did I realize what triggered it: seeing, erm, people. My brain is an idiot.
One woman in Williamson’s online survey reported hearing Banarama in her head whenever she experienced stress. She claimed this went back to when she first heard the song, aged 16 and taking a big exam. Personally I find earworms are louder and more insistent when I’m hungover, though Williamson says I’m the only person to report that. “90% of people get them at least once a week,” she says. “But it’s difficult to find patterns. We’ve looked at gender, personality type. Women are slightly more likely to experience earworms than men, but the differential is very small.”
This is the most significant factor. Involuntary memory relates to far more than just music – it’s the reason you suddenly decide to Facebook someone you haven’t spoken to in years. But this phenomenon of things ‘popping into’ your head seems to be particularly intense when it comes to melodies.
The primary cause of stuck song syndrome is memory associations,” says Williamson. “Music embeds itself very deeply into our memory systems. Elderly people with dementia, their musical memory often survives intact. You might see something unconsciously that reminds you of your childhood, so then a song from your childhood is triggered. It’s a line of dominoes.
Here’s the theory. Humans communicated for many millennia before the invention of writing. And in an oral society, the best way to remember something is by singing it, turning it into a melody. Hence, over countless generations, the human brain became hard-wired to retain musical patterns. We are music-making mammals.
OK, so this is my own theory, not Williamson’s, but hear me out. My hunch is that there is something fundamental in the very structure of thought that is similar to a melody. Think about the tunes that get stuck in your head: they’re always short bursts, never more than five seconds. And they are always just melodies. I’ve never had a drumbeat, three-part harmony or string section stuck in my brain.
Now consider this: recent research into the science of blinking suggests it has nothing to do with lubricating your eyeballs. It’s more about segmenting cognition. The implication? The human brain processes external stimuli in discrete bursts of around five seconds. Now apply that idea to earworms. A thought is the same length as a chorus hook. Thought and melody dovetail perfectly, because on some level they share a similar structure.
When I explain my theory to Williamson, she demurs. It’s a “huge question,” she says, and she simply doesn’t have enough data to hand. “There are lots of theories about this. Earworms could be related to the way we experience consciousness, or the way we experience time. We just don’t know.”
She also takes issue with my idea that earworms are only ever top-line melodies. Some people’s experience is apparently richer. “You’d be surprised how intricate and multi-layered they can be,” she says. Some people do hear whole orchestras. Not necessarily musicians, either.”
Can earworms ever be harmful? Could they ever literally drive someone mad?
We do get people who experience them every day. I have colleagues who study clinical cases. Musical hallucinations can be a part of schizophrenia. But that’s different to the experience we get every day. Most people who experience earworms a lot are just used to it.
OK, but why melodies? Why music? Why doesn’t a vision ever get stuck in your head? Why do you not wake up with a smell that you can’t dislodge?
“I think music is multi-sensory stimulus. It’s connected to personal memories. Emotional states. There can be a tactile representation, music can be associated with lots of things. It’s emotional and personal. And music has a special way of embedding itself deeply in your memory. So you remember the melody of a song you heard 40 years ago, but you can’t remember the name of someone you met last week.”
So much about earworms remains mysterious, unknowable and random. Williamson has been conducting studies for four years, gathered over 100 earworm testimonies. Yet she’s yet to find a single recurring song. Much as we like to think of certain tunes as uniquely memorable, the science doesn’t bear that out. There is no formula for creating an ‘ultimate earworm’, because the factors that give rise to them are so personal.
Plenty to think about, then, next time you’re staring at the ceiling with the bloody Levellers on an infinite loop inside your skull. If you’d like to learn more on the subject, visit Williamson’s Earwormery site and listen to this excellent Radiolab documentary. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got the moves like Jagger, got the moves like Jagger, got the ooo-weee-oooo—please kill me.