The Cure For Earworms, Ctd

Maria Konnikova searches for a fix:

The ubiquity of modern music and the resulting proliferation of earworms raise [a] question…: How do you dislodge one? In a study that [researcher Lauren] Stewart and the psychologist Victoria Williamson just published in the journal PLoS ONE, they examined thousands of survey responses to see what, if anything, was an especially effective method.

While people’s strategies for ridding themselves of unwanted aural guests fell into one of two broad categories—distraction or coping—the most successful way to remove an earworm, they found, was to deal with it head on, by intentionally listening to the song or singing it out loud, no matter how embarrassing the song.

But it may be futile to try to resist completely, if Stewart is correct about why we get earworms in the first place. In ongoing research with a team of neuroscientists at the University of Western Ontario, she says, “we’re working with the hypothesis that people are getting earworms to either match or change their current state of arousal—or a combination of the two.” She adds, “Maybe you’re feeling sluggish but need to take your child to a dance class, so it could be that an earworm pops into your hear that’s very upbeat, to help you along. Or working in reverse, can earworms act to calm you down?” It would explain why we sometimes get earworms even when we haven’t been listening to music at all, or why people who spend a great deal of time in nature often report beginning to hear every sound—wind blowing, leaves rustling, water rippling—as music, which their brain spontaneously plays over and over. Just as important, it would help explain why our brains often seem to linger on music that we don’t particularly care for.

Previous Dish on earworms here and here. Update from a reader:

For some reason I am highly susceptible to earworms. Once a melody is in my head, it will play on repeat forever. I have been known to lose sleep when an especially pernicious little melody gets its hooks into my gray matter. My wife and kids know this and have to be careful what they sing around the house and how often.

I’m not sure what it is about my brain. I am easily distracted by music and can only play certain kinds of music when I work or read. It is usually extremely minimal ambient music with little melodic or dynamic variation to grab the brain’s attention (I actually run an online label for such music). Of course the brain just loves to find patterns and a simple melody (quite appropriately called a “hook”) is something that the brain just seems to love. The good news is that I have the cure.


Not necessarily any jazz. It should be at least somewhat melodic and instrumental. Standards are great because they have the right combination of familiarity and novelty due to the interplay between melody and improvisation. If an earworm is crawling around in the brain, its little barbs have attached themselves to the part of the brain that wants patterns. The new melody of the jazz tune will sneak it’s way in and replace the earworm melody in the brain. Then as the song develops and improvisation takes over, the melody is basically broken apart and dissipates. Several jazz tunes in a row should work well enough to dissolve even the most pernicious melody (think Pharrell’s blissfully obnoxious “Happy”).

Try it, you’ll thank me.