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Why You Can't Get That Song From 'Frozen' Out Of Your Head

03/07/2014 02:12 pm ET | Updated Mar 09, 2014

"Let it go, let it go."

It's the song that seems to be stuck in everyone's head. And Idina Menzel's (a.k.a. Adele Dazeem's) rousing Oscars performance of the hit "Frozen" tune on Sunday only fueled the internal repeat loop. But why exactly do songs get stuck in our head in the first place?

Science has labeled the stuck-song phenomenon an "earworm," which is a direct translation from the German word "ohrwurm." One University of Cincinnati study found that 98 percent of people occasionally experience a song lodged in their heads (popular earworms in that study, which was conducted more than 10 years ago, included Kit-Kat's "Gimme A Break" jingle, "Who Let The Dogs Out" and "YMCA"). In another 2010 study published in the British Journal of Psychology, researchers found that artists such as Pink Floyd and Justin Timberlake were repeat earworm offenders.

"The sorts of songs which become earworms are highly individual but they have to be very familiar and it helps if they are being played constantly across the various media," the lead author of that study, Dr. Philip Beaman, associate professor of cognitive sciences at the University of Reading, tells HuffPost in an email. "Christmas songs are reported to be more frequent earworms in December than in August, for example, which may go some way to explaining the prevalence of the 'Frozen' song as an earworm."

And that repetition may be especially common for kids' songs. "One thing about earworms is them being repeated a lot, so I get many, many frayed parents who have listened to too many children introduction songs or learning songs, and they heard them 30, 40, 50, 100 times and they're stuck as a result," psychologist Vicky Williamson told NPR in 2012. She says simple songs seem to make up the majority of earworms, though they can also be very complicated.

The typical song snippet lasts no longer than 30 seconds, Beaman says, and if it's just one part of the song playing over and over in the head, his research shows it's usually the chorus or the refrain (though the actual part of the song that plays in your head is also likely to vary).

Research from the University of Montreal has suggested that earworms last longer in musicians than in non-musicians. They also tend to infect our brains when we're in a positive emotional state and are doing "nonintellectual activities," such as chores or walking, perhaps to prevent brooding while engaged in something mindless.

"A function of earworms could be emotional regulation," the lead author of that study, Andréane McNally-Gagnon, told LiveScience in 2010.

Her research also showed that when people sang their earworms aloud, they closely matched the original song in terms of pitch, key and pacing, LiveScience reported.

Why music snippets repeat in our heads rather than, say, sections of a speech is more of a mystery, according to Beaman. "Some people report repetitions of short phrases but very rarely and they tend to be melodic in nature anyway (e.g., repeated phrases from an advert)," he says. "Music need not contain lyrics to produce an earworm, although it often does. Those who report earworms without lyrics tend to be classical musicians and the like, who encounter orchestral music more frequently than most of the rest of the population."

While scientists have yet to crack the code on how to permanently evict a catchy tune from your head, according to Beaman's research, earworms rarely last longer than 24 hours. "Some authors have speculated that the earworm takes up short-term memory capacity and therefore it cannot last longer than the length short-term memory can contain," he says.

In the meantime, a few tricks might help if the song trapped inside your head is really driving you crazy: "The most common methods are to try and displace it by doing something else or humming a different tune," he says. "Trying to ignore it may work but I have just completed some research suggesting that the chewing action of eating or chewing gum might help -- this makes sense because all sorts of auditory imagery is reported to be less vivid under these conditions."

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