Musicologists weigh in on earworms

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From the eclectic mind of Roger VanHaren

Roger VanHaren

A few years ago, I read an article by Stephen King about “earworms.” At that time, I’d never heard the expression before, but I looked it up and evidently it’s pretty common. Why didn’t I know that?

From what King said, “earworms” are tunes or songs that get stuck in the phonological part of our brains. We hear a song (or part of a song) and then we sing it or hum it over and over, sometimes audibly, sometimes just in our heads. King said the one that was stuck in his head was the jingle about “free credit”

It’s as if a computer virus or “worm” has eaten its way into your cranial cortex and taken up residence there, and despite your best efforts, it hangs around for a long time.

Well, King’s article piqued my interest, so I started doing some research and I found out that earworm is a “loan translation” from the German word “ohrwurm” (literally “ear worm”) which translates to “a song, or an advertising jingle, that invades your consciousness and won’t leave.” So, colloquially, it’s “music being stuck in one’s head.”

I also found out that there have been studies done on this phenomenon. (Aren’t you surprised?) One guy, James Kellaris, determined that different people have varying susceptibilities to earworms. (Are you surprised?) Another guy, psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, also did a study, but he called the earworm a “haunting melody.” A neurologist, Oliver Sacks, called it “involuntary musical imagery.”

I did a little more looking around and found a site, “Wanted Words,” a feature of CBC Radio One’s “This Morning” hosted by Jane Farrow, which asked listeners to invent a word for this phenomenon. Submitted entries included “aneurhythm,” “humbug,” “stuck song syndrome” and “repetune.” Don’t you love it?

I also found some data on research which the aforementioned Dr. Kellaris published in 2003. (I still find it hard to believe I never heard of it!) Here’s what he said: “Songs with lyrics are reported as most frequently stuck (74 percent), followed by commercial jingles (15 percent) and instrumental tunes without words (11 percent). On average, the episodes last over a few hours and occur ‘frequently’ or ‘very frequently’ among 61.5 percent of the sample.” So there, scientific evidence, collected by a Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati.

So how do you get rid of earworms? Kellaris didn’t come right out and say so, but I’m betting there’s no known cure! But Kellaris said that he discovered that nearly two-thirds of the 559 people in his study resorted to singing a different tune to try to shake loose the one that was stuck. Some simply tried to distract themselves, and others tried talking with someone about it. A small number tried to complete the song in their heads in an effort to get it to end.

If you’ve ever been to Disney World, I’ll bet you wish there were a cure, though; after you’ve heard “It’s a Small World, After All” 800 times, you’re afflicted with that thing for hours. Probably my just mentioning it will cause a recurrence. Sorry!

A couple of weeks ago, a very dear friend died after an excruciating ordeal with a particularly virulent cancer. She was a classy lady and her funeral (planned by her) was a beautiful service, with a wonderful twist at the end. She had insisted she wanted to end the service with a sing-along to Elmo the Muppet’s rendition of “Sing, Sing a Song.” First, we listened to Elmo’s recording and then we all joined in, and everyone left the service with a big smile. It was beautiful – and just what she wanted. So for two weeks now, my particular earworm is “Sing, Sing a Song.” And I’m not trying to get rid of it; I like having her in my mind.

Contact Roger VanHaren at