A weekly insight into music's affect on the mind through a review of Musicology and Music Therapy.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Musical Brain Worms

People often complain about having a particular song stuck in their head. We typically blame this on the fact that the song is particularly "catchy", or we blame it on the radio playing the song multiple times a day. However, sometimes we don't have a reason for why the song is stuck in our head. It sometimes just happens that we are walking along and a song we listened to as a little child becomes thoroughly rooted within our mind. Often times, we don't understand this, but Musicology has worked to answer it for us.

A study by Oliver Sacks the author of Musicophilia argued that these musical "ear-worms" that we get stuck in our heads typically consist of "short, well-defined phrases". They are normally short consisting of a line or two. These "ear-worms" are typically born of a song we know well or originate from an advertisement that has a little ditty as its main feature. Our minds catch on to and often repeat these short musical phrases over and over again for hours even days at a time. These little brief snippets of music can also have a longer life expectancy than the occasional onset. This means that they will sometime fade with time or the introduction of a new stimulus; however, they may simply be lying in wait for another time. A word, conversation, noise, image, anything can re-trigger the particular "ear-worm". In short, an "ear-worm" is a short collection of musical phrases that can last in the mind for extended periods of time.

Now that we know what an "ear-worm" is, why do they have this affect on us? Why will we get these short selections of music stuck in our head and are unable to get them out?

 For starters, part of the reason we get these musical brain worms stuck in our head is because they are composed or made so that they will do just that. Composers and song writers create these songs in such a way that they know people will get them stuck in their head. This means these songs are often invariant in nature. The melody would be very repetitive allowing for it to become easily memorized and ingrained in the human mind. Furthermore, when a person gets an "ear-worm", it is most often the part of the song that the composer created to be catching.

Another reason why these musical "ear-worms" get stuck in our head is we as a people have allowed ourselves to become over stimulated.  We have devices (ipods, mp3 players, cd players, etc.) that allow use to carry thousands of songs right at our finger tips. As a result, we have become bombarded with musical sounds.  Even without these devices we are surrounded by music in stores, restaurants, and other places. It is almost impossible to retreat into pure silence; as a result, our minds often take over when we are lacking this stimuli. This leads to musical sensitivity in which the mind provides the musical stimulus we are so desperately seeking by creating a musical projection within our own mind.  In addition to this musical sensitivity, humans typically have repetitive tendencies. As music is often repetitive in nature, we allow ourselves to indulge in music by listening to it consistently to fulfill our desire for organized and melodic sound. When this indulgence is denied, the result of ignoring it comes in the form of musical "ear-worms". Our brain works to make up for the stimulus (sense of sound) that we are lacking by creating its own.

Furthermore, there are several other problems (in addition to musical "ear-worms") that arise due to the auditory bombardment on our senses. One of these is the increased amount of early hearing loss. An increase of hearing loss has been shown in recent generations that is predominately resultant from new music technologies (ear buds, ipods, cd players, tape players, headphones, etc.).  It is because of these "day-long concerts" via radio, media player, and other devices that we are seeing an increase in not only the over stimulation of auditory senses and "ear-worms", but an premature and progressive loss of hearing in people.

In conclusion, musical "ear-worms" are the results of their nature and our overuse of musical stimulation. 

Have you ever had a musical "ear-worm"? Does what the study of Musicology suggest on this subject make you view your own musical "ear-worm" experiences differently or with more insight? Why or why not? Do you view musical media devices now, knowing that they may be potentially over stimulating your auditory senses (hearing) and causing damage? If you have any thoughts or questions on this post, please feel free to share in the comments. I would love to hear what your experiences, thoughts, and ideas on musical "ear-worms" are.


  1. Leah,
    I love all of this information. It gave me a lot of useful information that I had not thought of before reading this post. My younger brother has significant hearing loss, and it could be due to overuse of his I-pod and MP3 players. He always listens to his music too loud. It was interesting to read the different ways the songs can enter into our brain!! Love the design of your blog!

  2. Very interesting information. Thanks for sharing :)

  3. Wow Leah, you rocked this blog! It is so informative and your love for music truly shines through in your posts. The background and visuals are are perfect! Love it.