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Earworms – Those Songs That Get Stuck in Your Head

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Do you know what an earworm is? You do, but the phrase may be new to you. An 'earworm' is a song that gets stuck in your head and drives you crazy. As a life long sufferer, it has gotten really bad lately. So bad, in fact, that I was able to diagnose and cure it. I genuinely think I know the reason these songs get stuck in your head to play over and over. The cure? I will reveal that in a moment.

See, I listen to my iPod at work very quietly. As you can imagine, I have to pause it incessantly to help people. I don't mind doing this at all. The music is so low you can't hear it. Anyhow, since I moved to this system, I suffer from ear worms all day long. It is a problem, because I can't concentrate on business. I soon realized what it was. Whenever I didn't finish a song… it stuck. There is only one cure, to listen to the song to completion.

If you are familiar with optical illusions, you know they work because the brain wants to complete things. In fact, it has to. This is why movies look like moving pictures to us, when in fact they are just a series of completely still images. The phenomenon is called 'persistence of vision'.

So, I am going to call earworms 'persistence of hearing'. Your brain so desperately needs the resolution of that hook that it will replay it over and over. This, I believe, is why commercials are so pernicious with hooks you can't get out of your head. There is no resolution to those 'hooks'. The song on a commercial never comes to a logical close, so your brain get deeply concerned about the fate of those baby back baby back baby back ribs.

I had rid myself of this problem driving, as I listen to NPR talk radio only now. Clear Channel finally got me to drop FM for good. So, on the weekend that doesn't happen to me. At work, though, I was stricken. I found by taking the extra 90 seconds after I left my desk to come back and hear the song to it's end… earworm gone! To be fair, it usually isn't that easy, as ambient music is aural pollution all around you. Traffic, the gas station, that crap they play at the grocery store, you get the idea. This method even works on the holy mother of all earworms, 'The Girl from Ipanema'. That is, of course, if you have your own copy of the tune. It is worth it, as every director uses the tune in every elevator scene in a movie. It is some kind of inside joke to the film community, I guess.

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  • i saw Leo Kottke one time and he told a story of getting “Yummy Yummy Yummy, I Got Love In My Tummy” stuck in his head….though i can’t remember how he got it out.

    oh crap, now I have it stuck in my head. gees, at the mere mention!

  • Insofar as getting rid of an earworm, writing an article about the tune usually does it for me.

  • Che

    Mark.. ah the Yummy Yummy song. Its my second most frequent earworm. My first most frequent is the Istanbul/Constantinople song. Don’t ask me why, it just is. I don’t own a copy of either of those songs, and don’t listen to radio so I’m unlikely to hear them either in full or truncated form, so I’m not sure the author’s theory applies to me.

  • Bill

    Several years ago I heard about a cure for earworms (probably on NPR). The problem is that the cure may be much much worse than the earworm you have.

    To drive out that earworm, start thinking of the melody to “America” from West Side Story.

  • Abba have made an entire career out of creating earworms. Damn tasty ones too.


  • David Lindley told Leo Kottke to hear the song backwards to get it out of his head.

  • Michael Wolff

    My problem is with images. One look at a pacifer and suddenly every memory has people sucking pacifers. Anyone know the cure?

  • Cure123

    I deserve an award for having earworms stuck for about 8 months. I cured it [personal contact info deleted]