Articles, Blog

Earworms: Those songs that get stuck in your head – Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis

December 2, 2019


Have you ever been waiting in line
at the grocery store, innocently perusing the magazine rack,
when a song pops into your head? Not the whole song, but a fragment of it
that plays and replays until you find yourself unloading
the vegetables in time to the beat. You’ve been struck by an earworm,
and you’re not alone. Over 90% of people are plagued
by earworms at least once a week, and about a quarter of people
experience them several times a day. They tend to burrow in during tasks
that don’t require much attention, say, when waiting on water to boil or a traffic light to change. This phenomenon is one
of the mind’s great mysteries. Scientists don’t know
exactly why it’s so easy for tunes to get stuck in our heads. From a psychological perspective, earworms are an example of mental imagery. This imagery can be visual, like when you close your eyes
and imagine a red wagon, or it can be auditory, like when you imagine
the sound of a baby screaming, or oil sizzling in a pan. Earworms are a special form
of auditory imagery because they’re involuntary. You don’t plug your ears
and try to imagine “Who Let the Dogs Out,” or, well, you probably don’t. It just intrudes onto
your mental soundscape and hangs around
like an unwanted house guest. Earworms tend to be quite vivid and they’re normally made up of a tune,
rather than, say, harmonies. A remarkable feature of earworms
is their tendency to get stuck in a loop, repeating again and again
for minutes or hours. Also remarkable is the role
of repetition in sparking earworms. Songs tend to get stuck when
we listen to them recently and repeatedly. If repetition is such a trigger, then perhaps we can blame our earworms
on modern technology. The last hundred years have seen
an incredible proliferation of devices that help you listen
to the same thing again and again. Records, cassettes, CDs,
or streamed audio files. Have these technologies bread some
kind of unique, contemporary experience, and are earworms just a product
of the late 20th century? The answer comes from an unlikely source: Mark Twain. In 1876, just one year
before the phonograph was invented, he wrote a short story
imagining a sinister takeover of an entire town by a rhyming jingle. This reference, and others, show us that earworms seem
to be a basic psychological phenomenon, perhaps exacerbated
by recording technology but not new to this century. So yes, every great historical figure,
from Shakespeare to Sacajawea, may well have wandered around
with a song stuck in their head. Besides music, it’s hard to think
of another case of intrusive imagery that’s so widespread. Why music? Why don’t watercolors
get stuck in our heads? Or the taste of cheesy taquitos? One theory has to do with the way music
is represented in memory. When we listen to a song we know, we’re constantly hearing forward in time,
anticipating the next note. It’s hard for us to think about one
particular musical moment in isolation. If we want to think about the pitch
of the word “you” in “Happy Birthday,” we have to start back at “Happy,” and sing through until we get to “you.” In this way, a tune
is sort of like a habit. Just like once you start tying your shoe, you’re on automatic
until you tighten the bow, once a tune is suggested because, for example, someone says,
“my umbrella,” we have to play through until it
reaches a natural stopping point, “ella, ella, ella.” But this is largely speculation. The basic fact remains we don’t know
exactly why we’re susceptible to earworms. But understanding them better
could give us important clues to the workings of the human brain. Maybe the next time we’re plagued by a Taylor Swift tune
that just won’t go away, we’ll use it as the starting point
for a scientific odyssey that will unlock important mysteries
about basic cognition. And if not, well,
we can just shake it off.

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100 Comments

  • Reply Hamna July 12, 2019 at 6:32 am

    That’s why music is haram, it’s sort of intoxicating

  • Reply Vany Vanadium July 13, 2019 at 11:49 am

    3:58 ella ella ella HAHAHAHAHA my favorite part of this video

  • Reply Andre Miguel Bianes July 13, 2019 at 7:44 pm

    I love this episode so much

  • Reply Andre Miguel Bianes July 13, 2019 at 7:47 pm

    I had to watch this a couple of times because it's so good

  • Reply Andre Miguel Bianes July 13, 2019 at 7:50 pm

    That umbrella reference tho😂 I really love this episode

  • Reply sakthi sd July 15, 2019 at 5:27 am

    Listen the song that's struck in your head completely. And then it goes away

  • Reply Bea A. July 15, 2019 at 10:25 am

    I was unfortunate enough to have a Frank Sinatra song playing in my head while my most important final was in play. I got 92.3% out of 100% in my report card… I hate myself (Asians amirite)

  • Reply FMO Nemesis July 17, 2019 at 7:38 pm

    🎵Don’t be afraid to catch feels don’t be afraid to catch feels don’t be afraid to catch feels🎵 like honestly get out of my head

  • Reply Lucy Boco July 17, 2019 at 9:59 pm

    Do you imagine how stress when you are in math exam ?

    Yeah you said it extremely stress right
    I have song that stock in my head in math exam 🥺🥺🥺🥺😭😭😭

  • Reply John K July 17, 2019 at 11:53 pm

    I once got the word "duodenum" stuck in head.

  • Reply Im Ha Anh July 18, 2019 at 3:43 am

    i usually just play the whole song in my head when i am at somewhere quiet and bored, like a lecture or event to entertain myself, the song doesn't get stuck in my head unless i want it to.

  • Reply Eric Yao July 19, 2019 at 12:09 am

    Valar Morghulis

  • Reply Rilly Rolling July 19, 2019 at 9:21 am

    The first time i had an earworm i was a kid , so i started crying because i thought i was doomed to hear the song for the rest of my life.

  • Reply Martim Vilela July 19, 2019 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks. Now I have an 'Umbrella' earworm. really. Thank. YOU.

  • Reply J. Chang July 20, 2019 at 8:01 am

    Onces can relate lol

  • Reply Kunal Yadav July 20, 2019 at 12:09 pm

    Who plays a playlist of the same songs every morning, to kick start your day

  • Reply Maria Jose Cardeño July 20, 2019 at 4:41 pm

    Nobody:
    TedEd: you're probably not thinking who let the dogs out
    Me with my macho voice: WHO WHO WHO WHO

  • Reply Corporate Coffee Futures July 20, 2019 at 6:38 pm

    Weird, I have been having Taylor Swift's Shak It Off in my head in my head for three weeks except that my mind made up a language for it since I don't know the actual lyrics.

  • Reply RAJAS SURLIKAR July 21, 2019 at 12:01 pm

    JIBUN WO INTENSIFIES

  • Reply Diamond July 21, 2019 at 9:07 pm

    Now who let the dogs out is stuck in my head

  • Reply Mr lemon lemon July 22, 2019 at 10:59 am

    Ce le bra tion come-on

  • Reply Flor Kee July 22, 2019 at 5:24 pm

    Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse – of Montreal. You’re welcome.

  • Reply S.c. McGowen July 23, 2019 at 3:33 pm

    I sometimes have the Super Mario Bros. Ground theme play in myt head

  • Reply Hope Tikvah July 23, 2019 at 8:08 pm

    Idk if I'm the only one but I always get poetry stuck in my head

  • Reply Soumya Sahu July 25, 2019 at 2:42 am

    When i have an earworm stuck. I listen to the song once and there you go. It goes. Works for me!

  • Reply Gianna Sanzen July 26, 2019 at 1:38 am

    trying to stop this is futile-
    𝘴𝘰 𝘫𝘶𝘴𝘵 𝘭𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘯 𝘢𝘨𝘢𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘰 𝘮𝘺 𝘮𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘥𝘰𝘰𝘥𝘭𝘦

  • Reply BangtanAbbie FA July 27, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    2:17 damn it i really cant get that tune out of my head 😂

  • Reply FMO Nemesis July 27, 2019 at 9:10 pm

    I am the cursed 1/4

  • Reply Fatima Hiba July 30, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    I went to go listen to believer just because of this…

  • Reply mahesh muralidharan July 31, 2019 at 2:59 am

    I love this😍😍🤗😘

  • Reply Mamoon Ataur Rahman July 31, 2019 at 10:16 am

    Its so funny that the song in use in this video struck in my head for almost 2 days. 😁😂😂😂

  • Reply liz tomy August 1, 2019 at 5:09 pm

    ALIEN

  • Reply Krrot August 2, 2019 at 2:59 am

    Ok, thanks YouTube, i watched it, now what

  • Reply Yowatsapp 05 August 3, 2019 at 7:11 am

    I clicked because this reminds me of that episode of Spongebob were he gets a worm in his head when he listened to a song

  • Reply Dorothy Isidro August 3, 2019 at 6:54 pm

    1:34 – 2:21
    The song in the background is stuck in my head now.

  • Reply Nicolas Masters August 3, 2019 at 8:00 pm

    I love your videos and this one caught me by surprise. I've always been curious why I'm so susceptible to catchy songs and beats, more so than anyone I know. Honestly though, I think it's genetic.
    My mother told me how often songs get stuck in her head and my father was shocked when I was I started playing With or Without You by U2. He told me how he ruined 3 cassettes listening to that song. I came from two ear worm junkies and almost every song at one point or another has gotten stuck in my head. Idk if I hate it or love it but music is amazing. Chills from music is an experience everyone should get.

  • Reply Rafael Suprayogi August 4, 2019 at 1:25 am

    Baby shark : *Exist*
    Earworms : *Happiness noise*

  • Reply clαrιeɴ August 4, 2019 at 9:59 am

    When i get an earworm, i tend to listen to the actual song then usually it goes away idk

  • Reply Satakshi Niraj August 4, 2019 at 3:01 pm

    Ella ella ella is stuck in my head

  • Reply 100 subscribes without any videos cats August 4, 2019 at 3:44 pm

    that one spongebob episode where he had an earworm

  • Reply Vladz Gamingz August 5, 2019 at 11:44 am

    mUsICaL dOOdLE

  • Reply Thegamingteen44 August 5, 2019 at 12:16 pm

    For some odd reason I am trying to relax sometimes and suddenly the Dora the explorer theme song appears in my head.

  • Reply Мэтью МаТю August 5, 2019 at 12:43 pm

    Damn it… the song from lego movie 2 called "this song's gonna get inside your head" was giving me months of endless loop inside my head idk why.. and now that i watched and saw the title its all now coming back

  • Reply Carl Singson August 5, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    when ever i sing some of my favorite songs i forget if i said one of the songs correctly like my mind went blank

  • Reply Banana August 6, 2019 at 4:23 am

    Can’t go to sleep easily thanks to these

  • Reply kitty cat? August 6, 2019 at 5:26 am

    Earth worms: Those things you get stuck in your head

  • Reply Yis Pinto August 6, 2019 at 6:16 am

    Oh great now this song is stuck in my head

  • Reply Just A Random Person August 6, 2019 at 7:14 am

    I get ears worn bc of this beat 1:33

  • Reply Steven kong August 6, 2019 at 7:35 am

    I hate earworm

  • Reply Nathanael Yudhistira August 6, 2019 at 9:00 am

    "What is that melody?"

  • Reply izzy dillie August 6, 2019 at 9:05 am

    please tell me i’m not the only musical nerd here that gets Hamilton lyrics stuck it their head..

  • Reply Jevil Deltarune August 7, 2019 at 5:20 am

    Megalovania

  • Reply Black Eye August 7, 2019 at 7:51 am

    Mother Russian anthem

  • Reply it is Clock Speed! August 7, 2019 at 9:13 am

    Now your music is stuck in my head!

  • Reply Melon August 7, 2019 at 11:01 am

    Oh now I know why I always think of touhou soundtrack

  • Reply blue fire August 7, 2019 at 1:41 pm

    When cummonism anthem is stuck in your head

  • Reply GymnastGirl 1226 August 8, 2019 at 5:35 pm

    3:58

    4:28

    Thank me later

  • Reply Emerson E. Ramos August 8, 2019 at 10:31 pm

    Okay for real………

    Who let the dogs out?

  • Reply Patrick Bryant August 8, 2019 at 11:55 pm

    I constantly catch earworms when I am a little kid this day. The song that got stuck in my head for a quite long time was The Nice and Friendly Christmas March from Sheriff Callie’s Wild West. It got stuck inside my head ever since I was 12.

  • Reply Yaja Kump August 9, 2019 at 12:18 pm

    I hate when its English class, when i heard a simple word like “If” i started singing “It will rain” – Bruno Mars

  • Reply Darkness August 10, 2019 at 8:24 am

    Creepers

  • Reply Callum boyall August 10, 2019 at 6:37 pm

    until know i didn t know what an earworm was

  • Reply Teresa Wong August 11, 2019 at 6:39 pm

    Me: taking an exam
    Earworms: Let's play that song from a cartoon that we watched when you were 4 years old.
    Me in my mind: FFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUU

  • Reply h August 13, 2019 at 10:42 am

    WHOOO LET THE DOGS OUT?

  • Reply VKOOKIE shipper August 13, 2019 at 10:59 am

    I have every BTS song stuck in my head

  • Reply IvyValenzona August 14, 2019 at 10:54 am

    its just like what we call here in the philippines named "LSS (Last Song Syndrome")..

  • Reply Hjaja Bjka August 16, 2019 at 3:45 pm

    I know how to get rid of earworm. Listen to the song that stuck in your head over and over again.
    I have a song stuck in my brain before but after listening to it for hours finally it's gone.

  • Reply milkteaaddict August 24, 2019 at 2:51 pm

    Wow, I thought I was normal for not having this happen to me

  • Reply Duuu Tracy September 4, 2019 at 10:16 pm

    This song’s going to get stuck in your head

    -The LEGO Movie 2

  • Reply Frosting Roblox September 5, 2019 at 12:43 am

    Sigma Balls

  • Reply Titanic Big boat September 6, 2019 at 12:46 am

    I’m still having a ear since 2013 that’s when I discovered undertail

  • Reply JamEpix September 6, 2019 at 1:34 am

    3:16 mOOOOsic

  • Reply The First One September 7, 2019 at 2:38 am

    The ted Ed theme is stuck in my head

  • Reply rishi khandelwal September 7, 2019 at 9:32 am

    What is this melody

  • Reply IGATCHANIMATE ishime September 8, 2019 at 4:01 pm

    The earworms are singing "oh my my my, oh my my my, you got me high so fast", "with a boy with luv"

  • Reply Robert Schlesinger September 9, 2019 at 6:00 am

    Interesting video on an important aspect of the psychology of music.

  • Reply Russell Bezette September 10, 2019 at 12:58 am

    Good thing I listen to meme songs all the time and don't suffer

  • Reply Grimmm 258 September 10, 2019 at 4:40 am

    Human brains are fine tuned to recognizing patterns after all

  • Reply Kenn vincent Valdemoro September 10, 2019 at 11:03 pm

    Just use the clarinet to cure it

  • Reply tucawenn September 11, 2019 at 11:15 am

    i got earworms when i was 6 because of cartoons and animation memes

  • Reply Sandy Holliday September 14, 2019 at 3:01 pm

    Then why did I get woke up by a song I hadn't heard in 34 years and it was stuck in my head for 3 days?

  • Reply Virginia Garrido Genesta / BlockBoy September 16, 2019 at 12:13 am

    creeper

    XD gottem

  • Reply Cheeseburger Monkey September 16, 2019 at 12:17 am

    ANYONE GOT AN EARWORM WHILE WATCHING THIS

  • Reply Jasmine Agustino September 17, 2019 at 11:35 am

    Me: having a really hard test
    Brain: ALLOW ME TO MAKE YOU SUFFER EVEN MORE

  • Reply Ariel Angel September 17, 2019 at 10:10 pm

    Stir fry – Migos. I don't even like the song. I don't like the song but i don't hate it. It's the percussion i like but the synth gets on my nerves.

  • Reply Lucky Clover September 18, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    I just had 2 earworms and I haven't heard them for at least 2 years. I still can't remember the name of those songs.

  • Reply CobaltMusketeer September 21, 2019 at 3:31 am

    help i have earworms and eyeworms.

  • Reply Papita con Pure September 25, 2019 at 3:34 am

    Touhou music documentary.

  • Reply Galaxy The Fox September 28, 2019 at 5:05 pm

    Spongebob had a better explanation

  • Reply ZambieMan O_o October 5, 2019 at 4:38 am

    Round and round the record spins all day
    Listen again it takes you far away
    Trying to stop it is futile
    So just listen now to my musical doodle

  • Reply Faizal khan October 11, 2019 at 12:43 am

    Music not all the time sometimes listen music is OK

  • Reply I have to wait 90 days to change my name again October 27, 2019 at 6:14 am

    Of all things, my ear worm is the DK rap

    Please help

  • Reply Just a Sylveon with internet access November 21, 2019 at 9:42 pm

    Baby shark is basically Satan

  • Reply Gemma Casa November 22, 2019 at 12:58 am

    Ted Ed " Just shake it of" Taylor Swift "I have been summoned"

  • Reply OhHiThisIsFlorida ok November 23, 2019 at 2:05 am

    Jojo music would normally play on my head

  • Reply Allzombifood November 26, 2019 at 6:09 am

    ᶜʳᵉᵉᵖᵃᵎ ᵃʷʷ ᵐᵃⁿ.

    What's that? Must be nothing…

  • Reply tawseef taher November 27, 2019 at 4:05 pm

    what's the background tone name in 2:20?

  • Reply Rene Umeh November 29, 2019 at 11:52 pm

    somebody once told me

  • Reply Wilt Chamberlain November 30, 2019 at 10:43 am

    @switch1eighty

  • Reply TimTeemo December 2, 2019 at 2:31 am

    Congratulations, you are now thinking of Never Gonna Give You Up.

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