Why Random Songs Get Stuck in Your Head — and What to Do About It
When I woke up this morning my very first thought was “Love that chicken from Popeye’s”. The thought was set to music — and on repeat. Over and over and over again.
In reality, I do not love that chicken from Popeye’s. Or at least I think I don’t, because I’ve never even been to a Popeye’s. I have, however, heard that Popeye’s jingle a time or 5,000 in my life, so it’s clearly imprinted somewhere in the deep dark recesses of my brain.
Theoretically it would have stayed there, but unfortunately for me my roommate sang the jingle yesterday — one time — and it’s been stuck in my head ever since. For the record, my roommate is a vegan, so she also does not actually love that chicken from Popeye’s.
But anyway, the Popeye’s jingle is my current earworm. And possibly yours now too. You’re welcome.
It made me wonder, how on earth can I get this damn jingle out of my head? Sometimes when I have a song stuck in my head if I play it a couple of times it’ll go away, but these one-line earworms really burrow into my consciousness for some reason. So I turned to the source of most of my information: google. (Just kidding. Except in this case).
As always happens when I google something, I found about 5 million hits, some more helpful than others. There has, of course, been much research about earworms, since it’s clearly the most pressing issue of our time.
Surveys indicated that 90% of us experience an earworm at least once a week. The average earworm is 15–30 seconds long. Women, people constantly exposed to music, people who are super tired or stressed, and people with higher levels of neuroticism are more likely to be plagued with frequent earworms.
Scientists have even documented the song and commercial jingles most likely to be earworms, including: “by Mennon”, the “weem-a-wop” part of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, the “baby back, baby back, baby back ribs” jingle, the “plop plop fizz fizz” jingle, the “no we will not let you go” part of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the “rah-rah-ah-ah-ah” part of “Bad Romance”.
I don’t have scientific evidence of this one, but I think if you grew up in Chicago in the 70s and 80s it’s very likely that “588–2300 Empire” is also a frequent contender on your “most annoying earworm” lists. Seriously, I know a total of three phone numbers by heart: my phone number from when I was in grammar school, my best friend’s cell phone, and the number for Empire Carpets.
So what do you do? Suggestions for knocking earworms out of your brain include:
- Chewing on a cinnamon stick or gum (no idea why, but that’s what they say)
- Singing the Gilligan’s Island theme or “Happy Birthday” song (unless that is your original earworm)
- Solve a tricky anagram or a word puzzle to force the song out of your active memory
- Listening to the entire song (if your earworm is part of a longer song) for at least 3 minutes to see if the earworm is really your brain trying to remember the rest of the song
- Listen to some other catchy music
- Passing them on to someone else (like my roommate did to me — and now I’m passing on to you!)