Science Explains Why Some Songs Get Stuck In Your Head

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Have you ever wondered why on earth you keep humming a song you hate to your guts? Why do these “catchy” tunes stuck in our heads for a long time? Science, again, has the answers. Here’s why.

Sometimes, it’s almost impossible to get rid of a song replaying over and over again in your head.

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Some people call them “earworms.” For no apparent reason, you find yourself singing a tune by the latest American Idol project, or a tune by that one pop singer you think is just “trash.”

Earworms show a part of our mind that is clearly outside of our control. They arrive without permission and refuse to leave.

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They are like parasites, living in a part of our brain that rehearses sounds.

According to a team at Goldsmiths University in London, who collected a database of over 5,000 earworms, we all get musical memories, and people appear to have different ones.

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Neurologist Oliver Sacks argues that earworms are a clear sign of "the overwhelming, and at times, helpless, sensitivity of our brains to music." Music is all about repetitions, and this makes earworms so hard to shake:  They are musical memories that loop.

Repetition is key, but there are other reasons why some songs get stuck in our heads.

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And one of those reasons is “remembering.” As well as containing repetition, music is also unusual among the things we regularly encounter for being so similar each time we hear it.

Another fact is that those catchy tunes often seem to have something “interesting” or unusual about them.

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Although they are often simple and repetitive, earworms have also a little twist or peculiarity, which makes them “catchy.” This is probably why they can take hold in our memory system. They would get lost among other memories that sound similar if there was nothing unique about them.

Earworms are a phenomenon of long-term memory.

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Remember that time when you started singing a catchy song in your head right after someone had just mentioned its name. This proves that our long-term memory is responsible for this phenomenon, rather than merely being a temporary “after-image” in sound. Because, well, you didn’t even need to hear the song itself.

It's not the whole story...

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Ever heard of "slave systems?" Human memory researchers have identified so-called "slave systems" in our short-term memory - components of the mind that capture sights and sounds, keeping them alive for a short time while we focus on them.

"Inner ear” is one of the slave systems in our brains and it gets stuck on a few short bars of music or a couple of phrases from a song, rather than rehearse our daily schedule or idle thoughts.

And finally, here’s how you can get rid of them.

According to the article published in Time Magazine, here are a couple of ways to get a song out of your head:

Engage with the song. Listen to it all the way through. This will help quiet the constant loop in your head.

Distract yourself. Thinking about or listening to another song helps some people, too.

Let it be... Sometimes the best way to get rid of an earworm is to just try not to think about it, and let it fade away naturally on its own.

Sources: 1, 2

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