Huffpost Health News
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Ann Brenoff Headshot

On The Nail: The Earworms Of My Life

Posted: Updated:

A colleague last week asked me to take a look at a post she wrote in which she describes her deep connection to the music her mom exposed her to as a child. She had just watched Dave Grohl's music documentary "Sound City" and was treated to a concert where Stevie Nicks sang an acoustic version of her iconic song, "Landslide," performed so hauntingly that it brought the house to tears.

I began humming "Landslide" even before I finished reading the post. And since then, I've been battling a major case of earworm.

An earworm is "when your head gives a song more spins than your local radio station," says Huff/Post 50 blogger Pat Gallagher. "Certain tunes just stick in your brain like flypaper, whether you want them to or not." She nailed it. "Landslide" has taken up permanent residency in my brain with no signs of moving on. If I could, I'd be charging it space rent.

I'm trying to look at the bright side here. In a way, it's a good thing. "Landslide" managed to push out Nelly's "Ride Wit Me" that was put there three months earlier by an office hip-hop class. At the time, I was still experiencing residuals of Matisyahu's "One Day" which I heard playing in my favorite Kauai surf shop. Before that, the girls' chorus at my daughter's 8th grade graduation last June sang "New Soul" by Yael Naim, which then spent the summer in my head.

Earworms, all. I'm apparently what researchers would call "highly susceptible." And there are no vaccinations or cures for earworm, although there's an old wives' tale that says doing a crossword puzzle chases the song away; trust me, only for awhile. Running also apparently helps, but I think only if you wear earphones and listen to Bob Dylan in his early years while you pound the pavement.

According to research, there are reasons why certain songs are more likely to stick with us. Parents are especially susceptible to the songs they sing or play to their children -- even years later. And songs that we associate with special memories come back to earworm-haunt us. For me, Carly Simon's "Let The River Run" plays in my head every time I fight with my husband. It was "my song" with the guy I dated before him. Don't think we need Freud to explain that one, do we?

Psychologist Victoria Williamson told NPR that about 90 percent of us get a tune stuck in our heads at least once a week and because this is such an effortless form of memory -- we're not even trying and these songs come into our heads and repeat and repeat and repeat -- that it's actually a good thing in terms of memory research.

Her hope is that one day we can recall facts as effortlessly as we can these tunes. While it's a long ways away, this little memory thing our brains do might actually help science fix other memory issues connected to aging, she said. "Certainly if we can learn to harness the power
of earworms for memory retrieval then that may be one useful tool in our kit to better address such memory issues," she told The Huffington Post. That'd certainly be good news.

It's also probably good news that the older we get, the less prone to earworms we are. "As far as we can tell," said Williamson, "the trend, if one exists, is for a negative relationship between age and earworm frequency -- meaning that older people tend to report experiencing them less." But in reality, she adds, this is a small effect. "Much better predictors of how likely someone is to get earworms is how much a person listens to music and some aspects of their personality, such as a tendency towards neuroticism." OK, so she got my number on that last one.

Without question though, earworms can be annoying little buggers. Fifteen percent of those who experience them describe them as "disturbing," according to Williamson's website and one third called them "unpleasant." And even though earworms are essentially harmless, they can get in the way of what you are trying to do and can stop you from thinking straight.

We think Williamson was only joking when she suggested that the British national anthem sung slowly is good for getting rid of earworms.

Oh, and one other thing: Earworms are apparently quite contagious. Sometimes the mere mention of a song triggers it in another person. So with my apologies, anyone feel up for a chorus of "Landslide" about now?

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Marilu Henner's Memory Makeover Tips
of
Share
Tweet
Advertisement
Share this
close
Current Slide