They come by many names. Melodymania. Aneurhythms. Repetunitis. Tune Wedgies. Or most commonly, Brain Itch. They can also come in different forms, including lyrics, jingles & instrumentals. Yet they refer to the same phenomena, one that each & every one of us music lovers must have experienced at least once before. We instantly recognize the dreaded symptoms as they hit us: First we hear the song, or part of it. Oppa Gangnam Style. Long after the song is over, our own brain keeps playing the lyrics over & over like a broken recorder. Opp..opp, opp, opp. Oppa Gangnam Style! Then our fingers tap along with the beat. Eyyyy sexy lay-deh! Then we ourselves hum to the melody. Opp..opp, opp, opp. And finally, as the saying goes, the song gets “stuck” in our head, and we become zombies of our own brains as it is taken over by haunting melodies. Oppa Gangnam Style!
The Science Behind It
But don’t be alarmed. We are not dealing with real parasites, or zombies for that matter. This phenomena is completely natural, if not a little distracting. Especially when we have work to do. The song is more likely to be an earworm when its lyrics/beats are simple & repetitive, rather than varied & complicated. There are also reports that women tend to get affected by them slightly longer than men. In the words of a wise AcademyMOD biomusicologist: “Our brain has a strange affinity for addiction. From chocolate cravings to missing someone, from obsessive gaming impulses to sexual desires. For music there is little difference. MRI scans seem to show similar regions of the brain flaring up. Though the temporal lobes, and some regions for pattern recognition flared up as well this time. Who knew a simple set of airborne vibrations could trigger the auditory cortexes so much that the brain itself turns to a frenzy, craving a simple set of lyrics over & over long after the song is over?”
There is a popular tale of how Mozart’s children would play certain scales & melodies on the piano but would stop halfway. Hearing the incomplete piece of music, Mozart would then rush down to complete the tune himself. Apparently he “couldn‘t bear to listen to an unresolved scale”. Today’s TV advertisers, recognizing their usefulness, have been experimenting with earworms all over the shop. If you can’t seem to get the 1-minute commercial jingle of that new hair gel out of your head, then it seems to have worked. Because if you remembered the beat, you’ll surely remember the product advertised as well. And if you remember the product, you’ll help others remember it too. By humming the jingle.
The Biggest Earworm
It’s hard to pin down the most “itchy” songs or tunes. Most of the compiled lists online are either voted or personal. Musicologist James Kellaris, aka Dr. Earworm explains that the phenomena is much more related to individual characteristics of a person, the context of the situation & properties of the music. He also hypothesizes that “songs that contain rhythmic or melodic incongruity tend to act as earworms“. But here we all agree that the bigger worms are those tunes which are simple & repetitive. You might have realized before that the brain is in a similar state when it hears a beat as when it is counting. Boom, boom, boom ,boom. One, two, three, four. It has a natural love for patterns. And just like in any pattern, as long as there are “gaps“ in between, it tends to “auto-complete” the song by itself.
There is hardly one cure, but there are many that work for some, but not others. The most popular seems to be “replacing” one tune with another, as advocated by Unhearit. It works fine, but you need to be clever in the actual song you use to replace the earworm. The best suggestion are more complicated songs, ones that are not repetitive. Or else just keep playing different songs. The second most popular, and highly contradictory to the first, is to play the earworm until it ends. Of course, this is more recommended if your “brain itch” stems from you having heard the melody only halfway. And if it isn’t the gazillionth time you’ve heard it today. The third is to engage your brain in solving verbal puzzles, such as a five-letter anagram. Sudoku has been reported to work as well. However, they should be kept at a difficulty level that is enough. Not too simple yet not too hard. The goal is to distract your brain enough to dislodge the nuisance, not challenge your brain. This light mental workout seems very effective in snapping you out of the zombie melody.