CURIOSITIES

Earworm: what is the phenomenon whereby we can't get songs out of our heads

Have you ever found yourself humming, vocally and in your head, the melody or lyrics of certain songs even when you don't want to, to the point that that musical tune can't get out of your mind?

Nothing to worry about: this experience happens to about 90 percent of people at least once a week, and at most it can be a little annoying not to be able to stop a melody that repeats incessantly in your head.

Here is what earworm is, what are its causes (and possible remedies) according to scientific studies conducted over the years: browse the photo gallery to learn more

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Music sticks in our minds for a long time, even if we don't want it to: we blame the phenomenon called "earworm"
For many years, researchers, scholars and psychologists have been wondering why some songs and certain musical motifs constantly resonate in our minds. Have you ever found yourself humming, vocally and in your head, the melody or lyrics of some songs even when you don't want to, to the point that that musical motif can't get out of your head?Nothing to worry about: this experience happens to 90 percent of people at least once a week, and at most it can be a little annoying not to be able to stop a melody that repeats incessantly in your head. Here's what earworm is and what are its causes and possible remedies according to scientific studies conducted over the years: browse the photogallery to learn more!
MickaëlG, Wikimedia Commons
Why is the phenomenon called "earworm"?
"Earworm" means, from a literal point of view, a worm that enters the ear. Of course, this is a metaphor: in 1979, the German psychiatrist Cornelius Eckert used the term "earworm" to describe a song with a catchy melody that gets into the head and never comes out, like a worm with a fruit.
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The state of mind conditions the frequency with which the earworm manifests itself
According to a 2015 study conducted by music psychologist Freya Bailes, involuntary earworms are more frequent in moments of boredom, when time needs to be filled, such as when standing in line, waiting or alone. Music psychologist Vicky Williamson, on the other hand, has observed that the brain is more receptive to earworms when we are stressed, tired or melancholic, i.e. at times when we are most vulnerable. Furthermore, it can happen that a song resonates in our mind even when we have not listened to it for a long time: this occurs when an external stimulus occurs that awakens a memory related to that song, such as a specific moment in our life or a person. This is what is known as involuntary memory.
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The basis of an earworm-generating song is mainly repetitiveness
Songs stick in the mind especially when the melody is repeated compulsively. In fact, when the melody starts over again, it becomes a routine for people: therefore, it is difficult to eliminate a repetitive song from the head. And musicians and record producers know this, which is why they often compose very effective refrains that easily stick in the mind.
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The four elements a song must have to favour earworms
A marketing lecturer, James Kellarsi, identified what characteristics a piece of music must have in order to cause earworms: 1. Repetitiveness (especially choruses); 2. Simplicity of the musical part; 3. Inconsistency between text and music; 4. Inconsistency between rhythm and metric.
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Earworm is not technology's fault!
Since this phenomenon has been studied since the early 1900s, it is ruled out that its main cause could be technology or listening to a song with a smartphone. In fact, the earworm also occurred with the phonograph and the record player. Probably with technology to increase is rather the frequency with which this phenomenon occurs, as today we tend to listen much more to music.
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The earworm is widely used in advertising
This neurological phenomenon is, of course, most famous in the advertising world, which very often uses catchy, repetitive melodies to make its way into the minds of consumers: in fact, whenever consumers hear a specific song, they will tend to associate that musical motif with the product advertised with that song.
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Are there any remedies to make the earworm disappear ?
According to studies, focusing on eliminating the earworms can further aggravate them: focusing on this problem, in fact, is likely to increase its magnitude. Therefore, there are two potential remedies, called displacement: 1. General displacement, which consists of focusing on a specific task or goal; 2. Specific displacement, which consists of thinking of another song or melody to hum to shift attention from the previous song to a new one.
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25/06/2024
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