I can’t remember when or where I first came across the word ‘earworm,’ but I can never forget the first time I used the word in this newsroom.
It was one morning about a couple of years ago. I turned to my colleague David Baron (The World’s health and science editor), who was sitting next to me and said: Ugh! I have a really nasty earworm and I just can’t get rid of it.
“Eeeewww!!” said David, as soon as he heard the word earworm. The look on his face as he said this will stay with me forever. By the time I realized why he was so disgusted, he had composed himself. He looked concerned. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Does it hurt? Have you been to the doctor?”
I nearly fell off my chair laughing. “It’s not a real earworm, David,” I explained. “It’s just a silly little tune stuck in my head. I have no idea why it popped up this morning. And I just can’t get rid of it.”
Two years since, I’m delighted to have finally done a story about this phenomenon of songs suddenly popping up in our heads. After all, it is such a common, every day experience. If you missed my story on the radio, check it out here.
But here are some things I learned while doing the story, things I didn’t get to include in my radio piece.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have a scientific term for earworms. It is ‘involuntary musical imagery.’ In contrast, voluntary musical imagery is when we willingly think of a song, or a musical piece. It’s something we can control.
Earworms are like “unwanted or intrusive thoughts,” says Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal. (I’ve interviewed him before for The World Science Podcast about the origins of music. You can listen to that interview here.)
“All of us are plagued by these (intrusive thoughts),” says Levitin. “You’re driving to the airport and you can’t drive out of your head this thought that you didn’t turn off the stove. Or you lie awake in bed at night because…of intrusive thoughts.”
Why do we have these songs and thoughts swim in and out of our consciousness?
Psychologist Victoria Williamson has been studying earworms for the past few years. She is also an expert on memory – both musical and non-musical. Williamson thinks our involuntary thoughts are the result of memory processes in the subconscious parts of our brain.
“For the memory process to work as well as it does for us, it may be that that process needs some kind of rehearsal going on in the background to keep it fully functional,” she says.
But that’s only an educated guess. Williamson hopes to test her idea in her future research.
That brings me to the unanswered scientific questions about earworms, of which there are many.
Here are some that Daniel Levitin would like to be answered.
“Is there a personality variable? Does it have something to do with people who are more outgoing, whether they’re more creative, whether they’re lonely? Is the music there to keep them company?”
You can help answer some of these and other questions. Victoria Williamson is continuing her investigations of earworms. Just go to The Earwormery and share your experiences with tunes that got stuck in your head.
Earworms at The World Newsroom